Thursday, September 14, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #132

September brings an interesting mix of stories to Clarkesworld, exploring love and coupling, as well as space and time and sentience. The stories range from cerebral and strange to fun and witty to achingly hopeful and human. There are people who are birds, bots who are heroes, planets who are people, people who are machines, and just people being people, with all their flaws but also all the grace and power to save the world. It's never really a surprise to note that the stories are all science fiction, with perhaps a little hint at sci-fantasy but mostly these are stories that imagine a future where life can be different, and some futures where, for all life could be different, it hasn't really changed. So yeah, let's get to the reviews!

Art by Vladimir Manyukhin

“Antarctic Birds” by A. Brym (3627 words)

This is a deeply strange but lovely story about humanity and endings, and resistance, and love and mess and everything. It follows Nikau and Charlie, a couple who have come to a domed settlement in Antarctica to be educators, to teach the offspring of the Makers (or the Masters, or both), who are supposed to be the next stage of humanity. I think. There’s an intensely different setting at work here, but not a whole lot of explanation of any of it. People are birds are people, and Nikau can fly and Charlie has grafted wings that aren’t quite ready for flight and odd. What isn’t, though, and what’s at the heart of the story in my opinion, in the relationship between Nikau and Charlie, the ways that they are drawn to each other and love each other and, yes, hurt each other as well. Because it turns otu that Nikau has a different mission than Charlie, that he’s hiding a large part of himself, and that despite this his love remains. Which is complicated and sharp, the way the two move around each other defined by the lies they tell. Nikau’s lies are larger, more shattering. What he’s doing has implications not just for himself but for all the lives in the dome, and it was difficult at times to figure out why he was doing what he was doing. Only there is the sense, deeper than anything, that there are some messed up things going on. That here is humanity and it’s drifting away from itself, become something different and alien and Nikau can’t quite deal with that. As much as Charlie is the one struggling with teaching, struggling with how these new humans are, it’s Nikau that seems to be the one who, ultimately, can’t adapt. He’s too drawn to the past and to this idea of humans as separate, essentially alone and imperfect, and beautiful for that imperfection. It seems to drive him into doing what he does, which is rather drastic, but which fits with his urge to be free, to be truly free. It’s a difficult piece for me personally because I feel missing some key context, or that it might be part of a larger work, but what’s here seems to me about humanity and connection and fleeting nature of love. A fine read.

"Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel (4527 words)

Okay, so this issue is a very weird one so far, moving from birds in Antarctica to the vast reaches of space and a sort of gestalt being called /^^^\&- who has been sentenced to a jail term in what seems to be our solar system. As a cosmic entity she’s...well, operating on a different scale than most humans, and also bored, hoping to get from this planet something to pass the time of her exile. That means, of course, basically wiping away everything that Earth was and helping Earth become ^Rth^, another gestalt of all the humans on its surface, a sort of super-computer consciousness made up of the combine impulses of all that sentient life. Which is...weird. But there’s also an undeniable fun to the story, the way that everything flows together, the tone that is slightly irreverant and the way that all humanoids are referred to as monkeys. There’s just something about the idea that this entity who feels like a moody young adult would discover Earth and just start messing with stuff, pushing for a companion, only to accidentally kinda fuck everything up. It’s a great comment on size and scope, too, with the most important line for me coming with the advice to always root for the smaller person. For the underdog. For the being that’s being crushed or twisted or hurt by something so vast that it barely understands what that is. Here we see through the use of these very big beings, planet-sized consciousnesses, the same thing that the last story seems to have been getting at. That the most important thing is a single person. One monkey, as this story puts it, and it’s a great point, a great moment, when all the huge things must bow before the very small, these monkeys and their dreams and their joys. These monkeys who turn out to be enough to take down something huge, to infect God itself. And yeah, wow, it is a strange story, but it also just works for me. It’s not the happiest, ultimately, because of how much precedes the ending, but it’s all on a road to valuing the smallest life, the beauty of the individual in the face of such vast collectivity. A wonderful story!

"The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer (8975 words)

This story takes a fun and rather tense look at a bot activated on a ship in a dire situation and tasked with a seemingly simple mission. Of course, things get a little out of hand, but the story would be boring if they didn’t. The bot’s name is 9 and it’s a bit of an older model, a multibot (suppressing Fifth Element outburst...) who finds itself on a ship very changed from when it entered into its sleep. It turns out that the ship was junked, and none of the bots, despite seeming pretty sentient, were notified. Things have become so bleak in a war between humans and a hostile alien race, though, that the ship is being recommissioned...for a very dangerous plan. All that remains in the background, though, as the first part of the story is primarily concerned with 9’s quest to rid the ship of an Incidental that is sorta a rat, sorta a bug. The issue is that it’s alive and causing problems in the already-badly-damaged ship, and Ship, the ship’s AI, wants it gotten rid of. What I like about the situation and the story is the tone and voice of the characters. It’s a layered narrative, with the humans believing the mission is about stopping an alien attack on Earth while 9 is told to concentrate on the ratbug. As 9 moves through the ship and communicates with other bots, though, the situation becomes more and more clear, and more and more unacceptable. I love how 9 approaches these problems, valuable because it can think in ways that are unpredictable. It’s what gives it an edge against the ratbug, and it also means that it knows what’s going on with the humans and takes it upon itself to fix their plan when it goes wrong. It’s fun and rather cute, the bots full of personality and drama even as they’re supposed to be mindless and serious. And it does show that blindly following orders is often not enough to get the job done properly, and that sometimes even bots need to think outside the box. Which is a great way to build a rather complex layered story that pays off in the best of ways. The end puts me in the mind of a buddy-cop comedy staring 9 and the severed head on its shoulder. A wonderfully enjoyable read!

“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab (12087 words)

This is...I think I’ll call it an intensely intimate story of a pair of people growing up and growing into the paths their lives take them. Sometimes together but more often not, each drawn to service of the world, to making the Earth a more hospitable place to live, to repairing some of the damage that has been done to it. They grow up in a water crisis, and perhaps that, more than anything, seems to define them. Amir and Mani, who meet as teenagers in Beirut, who both become scientists and city planners. Who love each other—fiercely, deeply, achingly—and yet who very rarely get to spend time together. The story circles around them as they move through their lives and careers, the world a much different place but bearing the marks of exploitation, of harm. They are both workers committed to doing good, and fixing problems, and bringing water back to the people. And at its core the story to me is about this way of thinking, this way of living, that allows for space and intimacy and love without it being all-consuming. This is a world that seems post-nationalism, and in many ways most-monogamy. The characters all treat interpersonal relationships seriously, with respect, but there is no sense of possession. Even as that feeling, of owing and being owed, of owning and being owned, threaten at times to rise and conflict with everything else that’s happening. And yet Amir and Mani’s relationship, their love, goes deeper than ownership or debt. In fact the story for me is about getting away from thinking of human interactions in those terms, as if they were monetary or financial or anything like that. Instead the relationships are living things, requiring nourishment and care but also requiring that Amir and Mani be whole and separate people. Their drives and their ambitions meet often, and take them apart, and there is the feeling for me that there is a part of them that recognizes that they would sacrifice themselves for each other, that they would give up what they wanted and what drove them. But that the resentment of that would poison them, as it has poisoned the Earth. And that the only way toward healing, toward cleansing the world and making it a place worthy of people and people worthy of it is to operate from a place where no one has to make that sacrifice. Where a relationship that touches only briefly, from time to time, is no lesser than one of constant contact. That it is enough, and beautiful, and transforming, and should be celebrated, but not to the exclusion of other loves. It’s an amazing story that I don’t feel I can do justice to so really you should just go and read and enjoy the hell out of this story. It’s incredible!

“Möbius Continuum” by Gu Shi, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu (4442 words)

This is a story of cycles and perspective. About a man who begins the story having an argument with his partner and ends the story...well, that would kind of be telling. But the main character here is a man who is unhappy and discontent, or at least prone to argument and with something of a temper. Fleeing his relationship—fleeing his life, he gets into an accident that leaves him mostly paralyzed, but also opens a new avenue to him that he hadn’t considered. More and more he gives himself over to automation, to becoming more machine, to changing the very way that he thinks. Perception, time, and reality all seem to bend in this story, which is definitely a bit trippy. What I like about the story is how it sets up this idea that the world that we live in, and time as we experience it, are limited by our perception, and that if we were able to push ourselves past those limitations, we’d be able to unlock something huge and powerful. For all that, the story isn’t wholly happy to me, either, because for all the main character is drawn deeper and deeper into his own perspective and, though that, beyond all human perspective, there’s something rather tragic about what happens, a way that he’s stuck in what happens, able to understand it better but in many ways still a passenger, a spectator to what happens. It would be interesting to know what happens after this, but the real point seems to be how the main character travels, his senses all telling him he’s going forward and outward, when in reality that might now be the case, and his experiences might have entirely different shapes when viewed from afar. It’s a fascinating read, though, and very much worth sitting down with. Indeed!


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