Monday, October 16, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #133

The October issue of Clarkesworld Magazine is a wonderful examination of isolation and change. In each of the stories, characters find themselves in situations that they didn’t really expect. Situations that push them away from people, into their own heads, their own regrets, and their own desires. Whether the setting is a world where squids have taken the oceans, or where a group of young people find themselves trapped beneath a sea, or a religious man and his ship of Greeks are stranded on a nomad planet, or a world where nanobots build endless cities of no one to inhabit—these are places defined by boundaries and decline. And the stories focus how, even in these settings, people find ways to connect to one another. Not always in the healthiest of ways, but in order to make sense of their lives and to try and find a way forward. For some, that forward isn’t possible, or is lost, or was a lie all along. They are not overly happy stories, but they possess a power and a beauty and I should really just get to the reviews!

Art by Marianna Stelmach

“The Sum of Her Expectations” by Jack Skillingstead (7517 words)

This is a story that does a lot with isolation and loneliness, of consent and abandonment. It centers Amrita, a woman who has defied the conventions of a number of sentient races to push near the planet Trappist 1-e, where...well, where’s it’s incredibly clear what she wants. Perhaps more than anything she wants to defy a system that seems at every turn to have let her down. In any case, though, the piece opens with the rather dire situation of her ship and only friend, an artificial person named Tripp, falling toward the planet’s surface while she watches from an escape pod. In short order a representative from the super-advanced Kabbhan appears, its personality pulled from the deep recesses of Amrita’s mind, from her needs and her unconscious wants. And it’s a rather eerie thing, really, because the being manifests as her father. Not the actual man, but the idea she invented when she was small to stand in for the father who was missing from her life. This being appears and what follows shows Amrita trying to deal with her situation, with the feeling of being abandoned, with the isolation of being on a world pretty much with nothing but her own mind as company. It’s a story that slowly sinks, pulling the reader down into the lethargy and depression buried inside Amrita, rising up from the darkness that whispers that no one wants her, that she will always be alone. And yet for as dark as the gets, as reaching and yearning, there’s also a power that Amrita finds there, in confronting herself, in confronting the obstacles in front of her. Because for all that she becomes defined by her pain and the lack that pushed her out into this forbidden place, she’s also defined by the rebellion and the desire to act, to not give up, to not bow to any authority but her own. It’s a story that acknowledges the pains and layered insecurities she has while showing her overcoming them and finding a way forward, and outward, away from the shadows of her fears and back into a universe where the possibilities are still endless. A great read!

“The Nightingales in Plátres” by Natalia Theodoridou (5194 words)

Well fuck. Here’s a rending story about faith and about sacrifice, about wandering and hearing a voice offering to answer your prayers. It features a generation ship of Greeks sailing through the stars, stranded now on a nomad planet without a lot of hope for getting free and back on track. For Yánnis, who is something of a leader among the people of the ship, it feels like a test. And I love how the story faces the idea of stories and how stories frame identity. It looks at the myths of Greece, both pre-Christian and Christian, and how there is this strong theme of sacrifice and violence. Abraham and Agamemnon. In each, there is a price to paid and a man willing to pay it. In each, there is magic, and in some ways the stories are about having the strength to commit so fully to faith but not exactly having to pay the price. Or having to pay a price that ends up turning to ash. For Yánnis, the situation isn’t even that straightforward, and I feel the story really gets into the choice at hand—listen to a god that you believe in and do something horrible, or wait to see if belief without action will suffice. The story builds the difference between tests of faith and bargains incredibly well, and even as a non-religious person I love how that desire to make a deal is tempting, especially here with the weight of history and cultural identity pushing him to make this choice, to try and find a way to free his people. At the same time, the story seems to offer up some keen insights into the nature of bargains and faith, showing how people expect to be saved from the cost of their decisions, the agreements they have made. How Yánnis has already been brought to a sort of brink by the loss of his wife, and that faith here offers him a way to make that meaningful, to make it all meaningful, while at the same time finding no comfort, no freedom, in the act. It’s a complex and beautifully written story with an amazing atmosphere and powerful ending. Go check it out!

“The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon” by Finbarr O’Reilly (5875 words)

This is a somewhat creepy but wonderfully constructed story about a world where the oceans and much of the seas have been overrun by a man-originiated kind of squid, one designed to recycle plastics and pollutants but which has gotten...a bit out of hand, making it so that no petroleum-based products can enter the sea and expect to exit again. It’s a world where a great many people have died, and life has adapted to dealing with this situation that sees so much cut off from human use. The main character and narrator of the story works for an organization, it seems, that studies the squids and is trying to fight back against them in certain ways, creating areas where humans can use the waters. The story focuses, though, on the narrator coming to a small village and meeting a man there who carves squid out of driftwood. The man, Más, lives with the past very much still in his mind, not willing to cede the seas to the squid. It’s a complicated situation that sees human romance with the oceans against the reality of the damage that humans have done to them. Whether the reader will see the squids as malfunctioning or actually doing a good thing in their defence of the waters really comes down to how people see humans fitting into the world. For Más and those like him, the loss of the water is an attack that needs to be met, a war that needs to be fought. For the narrator, things are a bit more complex. But there’s still a deep understanding between the narrator and Más, a sort of recognition that while there is a lot of science and other aspects to consider, the squids themselves read a lot like monsters. That in some ways what they’ve reignited is the feeling that there is something the world is holding back from us, and we as humans have to force it to give it back. It harkens to the old days of exploration and exploitation, where the monsters at the edges of the maps were constantly pushed back, hunted and destroyed, and there’s a bit of a recognition that on some level that kind of thinking, humans vs. nature (and even a nature that we’ve created) is adversarial and conquest-driven. It’s a creepy story and a great mood the story builds, and I love the descriptions of the squids, the revulsion even as there’s something about them that draws, that captivates, that calls. A fantastic read!

“The Psychology Game” by Xia Jia, translated by Emily Jin and Ken Liu (2894 words)

This is a rather interesting story that is more a description than a series of events. And what the story describes is a show where people are brought in to talk to a therapist...only the therapist might be an artificial intelligence. And where that brings the story is towards examining what it means to seek psychological help and what machines have to offer. And, beyond and above that, what role machines can or should play in the human world. It’s a fascinating piece, one that really seeks to get at the sort of uncanny valley of how people recoil from artificial intelligence that becomes “too human,” that makes us question what it means to be human. And yet that’s almost exactly what the story points to as how AIs can help people, especially with mental health issues, because that question, of what is human, is one that we must constantly struggle with, looking to figure ourselves out and, through that, get a better handle on our problems and frame of mind. There are a few things the story doesn’t really get at, namely the economic reality of employing artificial intelligences in a world that doesn’t see for universal needs or employment, but as that’s not really what the story is trying to do, it was easy enough for me to go along through the ins and outs of this fictional gameshow, asking how wrong can it be, if the result is people helped? And I like how the story builds this vision of the future, this vision of the future of AI. It still sees AI as a tool to help humanity, and I like that hopeful feeling toward looking at AI. It’s a rather philosophical piece, and while I’m sure it might have been a little dry if it had lasted much longer, to me it maintains a nice pacing and is short enough to be fun and thought-provoking. So yeah, another fine read!

“Intro to Prom” by Genevieve Valentine (10861 words)

This is a deeply moving story about survival and hope and proximity in a rather hopeless situation, four young people stranded into a town in a dome under water, waiting out an end that they know is coming, growing close with every widening inch of the crack in the dome’s top. The story moves between the characters, Celandine, Jack, Robbie, and Mara, showing the different ways they adapt to the situation, to each other, to the shadows in their own minds. The story does a very good job of concealing exactly how long they’ve been inside the dome, alone, abandoned by the company that built it and then pulled out in order to hide the crimes committed there. The young people, without anything else to do, recreate prom. Maybe every day, or every week, or every month—time works in a strange way through the story, pushing forward but leaving all the characters ageless. Not because they don’t get any older physically, but because without the society to give them the clues as to what growing up means, they’re trapped as young adults, playing out the plots from shows and movies, trying to perhaps get prom right so that they can move past it but only ever going back to it again and again in order to avoid dealing with the fact that there is no getting past it, is no future really for them, just the inevitability of dying when the dome finally gives way. And for all that the situation makes them all hate each other, there’s a sort of love there as well, and whatever the case there’s a strength in going back to prom, in playing the game of it, of being there for each other even if that’s all they can do for one another. It’s a bit of a strange story, desolate and difficult at times, but it’s also beautiful in its prose and mood and how the characters fit together and how they don’t. And it’s a wonderful read that does a great job of closing out the original fiction of the issue!


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