Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #131

It's another full month of stories from Clarkesworld, though only the translation this time is a novelette. The stories are dense, though, and wonderfully strange, revealing the topography of meat, the tapestry of stars, the malleability of human flesh, and the tenacity of scientists working to protect data. There is a theme running through many of the stories of form and perseverance. People stand against the enormity of societal pressures to conform, to accept erasure or corruption or expectation. They follow what they know to be right even as it threatens to tear them apart. It makes for a nicely balance, emotionally impacting issue. To the reviews!

Art by Pascal Blanche

“Twisted Knots” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (5675 words)

This story takes the idea of artificial meat and puppets and golems and family and abandonment and whirls them into tunnels and loops, into a continuous topography of the life of Lilian, a young woman who was grown up to unlock the secret of sentience. The story builds from Lilian’s early life, showing how important space has been to her, and movement, the way the puppets her mother used to create plays danced and seemed to come alive. Indeed, the story looks at how that dance infuses the puppets with life, not artificial but tapping into some shape of sentience, bending space and time in such a way that the puppet become truly aware. And Lilian, working in a much different field, still finds herself drawn to the space of these movements, the swirls and tunnels. It’s a slower, more ponderous story that advances in strides, in looping curves, [SPOILERS!!!] showing how Lilian taps into this memory of her mother to create something like a sentient brain out of meat, and then discovers how to put this brain into an artificial body. In that the story evokes the oldest traditions of science fiction, the creation of life, the way that the creator’s desires and dreams are somehow put into this new creation and yet twisted as well. The story circles around the pain and hurt that Lilian has grown with, the wound from when her world was torn apart like a puppet’s clothing, and how she’s had to try to stitch it back together again. The premise is interesting and striking and the story is full of a weight that brings the reader down through its layers to a place where they can examine art and space and movement and family. It’s a lovely and beautiful story, and you should definitely check it out!

“Reversion” by Nin Harris (6678 words)

This story continues the theme of family and abandonment, longing and love, but brings the setting to the great reaches of space, long after the destruction of Earth, to reveal Aakavi, a woman who has caused something of a scandal for her conservative politician aunt by having run off to an amphibious world and married a native there, had a child there. The idea of purity and transformation are strong in the piece, where Aakavi has undergone surgical alterations to make her able to live on that faraway planet. To allow her to be with her partner and speak in the language of the deep. But because that planet is the focus of a larger debate, because humans are being forced off the planet, even if it breaks families, Aakavi ends up back with her family, having to try and find a way forward with a family that is mostly dominated by an aunt who considers what she’s done vile. She is being pushed to participate in a ritual that will hypothetically revert her into a “fully human” state to allow her to fully rejoin the family, but it’s a ritual that really only the aunt desires. Aakavi doesn’t fight mostly because she doesn’t know where she’s going, what she’s doing. Adrift from her forced parting from her partner and child, she thinks she’s out of options. And what I love about the story is how it shows that’s not the case. That she has options, that she still has power over her body and her future. The piece is nicely sensual, showing the relationship between Aakavi and her partner, showing this way that they didn’t exactly start in passionate love but that it developed as they understood more about each other, shared more with each other. It’s a strange story but in a great way, imagining a galaxy where humans have spread but brought a lot of their problems with them, even if people like Aakavi represent a hope that there can still be understanding and union between peoples and worlds and cultures. A fantastic read!

“The Stone Weta” by Octavia Cade (4358 words)

This is a story that delves into data, into biology and ecology and climate, to find a web of people working to prevent the erasure and silencing of science. The story moves from person to person, from code name to code name, each scientist in this web of data taking on the identity of a certain species, one suited to the task their project represents. Not only survival, though they prove remarkably able to survive in the very hostile environment of science threatened by government and corporate corruption. But also spreading and thriving. Pushing back against the forces that threaten to destroy them to find new ways of branching out, new ways of protecting their data and striving for justice. And I love that the story acknowledges that the knowledge itself isn’t enough. The primary focus of the story is on the protection of data, because it’s so important, but the data without aim or implementation isn’t enough. It looks at historical examples of people protecting information from destruction, but it also points to a future where protecting data would be irrelevant if no action is taken to curtail the advance of climate change. At the very least, there are already those who are dying, whose lands are being swallowed by the sea. The story weaves around these various lives, showing how each person approaches the same growing problem, and how they work together, a map and a topography of resistance, if not exactly revolution. And really I love that it’s a story about hope, however guarded and however complicated, that science can still function around the barriers that are constantly being put up to block it. Plus I just love all the descriptions of the plants and animals the story introduces and how they work into the identities of the scientists who use them as their avatars. It’s a moving mosaic of a story and certainly worth your time and attention. Go read it!

“In the Blind” by Sunny Moraine (5409 words)

Whoakay then. This is a slightly claustrophobic, intimate, brutal story about the possible end of the world, about isolation and space and confinement. About Nic and Marlie, two astronauts on a space station, stranded without knowing what’s happened to the Earth below except that communication has stopped and the lights have gone out. Nic, the main character, is someone who feels alone regardless of the situation. Who seems to have always been alone. Who dreamed of a vast ocean of ghosts. Whose fortune was a long stretch of silence. And now, alone with Marlie at the end of the world, she finds all the things in her life coming together, fitting into this single moment and the space beyond. And I love what the story does with the loneliness and the isolation that the characters find themselves in. Nic is full of this prickly need that they can’t really speak, because it’s so wrapped up in how they’ve always been, a loner not really by choice but by circumstance, always outside and looking in and always rather quietly resentful of it and now, with the world pretty much literally over they’re in the situation of being the last two people alive and even then they can’t reach out in understanding or solidarity or comfort. There’s so much shit that goes along with where they are, with their fears and their hurt. Nic, having always been alone, seems almost most effected by the sudden isolation Marlie finds herself in than anything else. Marlie finds herself without an anchor, looking for something to hold to but Nic’s defenses are still up. They don’t know how to really be there, and yet the pair find some common ground (after some rather dramatic setbacks, of course). And I just love the uncertainty of it, the way that what’s happened on Earth is all around them but they can’t touch it, can’t know. And how that eats at them, and pulls them apart, and pushes them together. It’s dark and it’s difficult at times but the story has this flow that works, strange and lyrical and wrenching and good. Another excellent read!

"A Man Out of Fashion" by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu (11,659 words)

Du Ruofei is the sole lottery winning for a three-hundred year sleep, a hibernation that will see him and the world's best and brightest asleep into an unknown and uncertain future. The story opens as he wakes, and the dissonance of his experience lays the groundwork for a new world obsessed with novelty, with the ability to change any part of their appearance or experience or even memories at will. And Ruofei is the man out of fashion from the title, analog in ways that the future finds strange and interesting on some level but also backwards and ignorant. Once in the "future" he is immediately paired with a "mate" and the story sort of becomes about the ways in which this future is decadent and how Ruofei remains perhaps backwards, but also able to see value in a wholly different way as the people of this new generation. And, not going to lie, it leans the story into "kids these days" territory, putting an emphasis on how monogamy and difficulty make for a more morally upstanding person. Or at least I got some of that vibe from the story, especially when dealing with the relational aspects of the story and Ruofei's mate. It's…I just find stories that focus so much on how being able to change one's body leads to moral collapse or vulnerability to be…missing the point. Not that I feel the story does so without complication, but in my opinion it certainly veers that way and in doing so left me feeling it falls into the long tradition of stories where visions of the future are offered up as cautionary tales and little more, used to judge those who might want different bodies or might want different relationship structures to be accepted. That said, it's a long story that ends up doing quite a bit and I certainly think people should read this one and make up their own minds about it. The ending does complicate things a bit, and I suppose now I'm curious how the story originally appeared, as the translation is based on a version of the story much different than it's first printing. But yeah, go check it out.


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