Monday, November 13, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #134

November seems a rather experimental month for Clarkesworld, with five stories that are all a bit weird in some ways. They are five very different stories, about progress and about loss and about wonder. They feature settings deep in space or on Earth’s very different from the one we know. And really, for me, what binds them together is memory. The stories all deal with characters looking back on events, trying to form a picture of what’s happened and being confronted with the story that time has told. For some, it’s a way of moving on from the past and reaching toward the future. For some it’s about mapping a present that’s a closed loop, where progress is impossible. For some, it’s about tracing the paths of harm and hope to try and make sense of a present that is uncertain. But these are stories of time and memory, and I’ll get right to the reviews!

Art by Jonas De Ro

“Prasetyo Plastics” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (5204 words)

This story looks at plastic, and the lines between the organic and the inorganic, and the way that people, that humanity, might be running willfully toward its own destruction. For all that, it’s a slow story, the pacing measured and the distance between reader and character fairly large. The tone is detached, at least, the main character a plastics scientist named Ali who helps to usher in a new age of plastic, one where 3D printing and recycling creates a sort of living, breathing ecosystem of plastic, one complicated by the way that humans bond plastic with the organic to create more and more intricate constructions. And Ali, who has watched this happened, who has pushed it to happen, has always just assumed that the Earth would adapt, that it would let people know that something was wrong. Only it was, long ago, and humanity missed the warning signs, and so instead something happens to shake the very foundations of human thought. And I like how the story frames that progress, and where it brings Ali and his dreams, the cycles of humanity leading into the cycles of something else. At the same time, it challenges us to question what life can look like and what role humanity can and should play in creating, protecting, or fighting against new life that might emerge thanks to our own mistakes, oversights, and abuses. It’s a strange piece in many ways, that slowly builds up a world and a situation so like our own, where Ali is stuck in this position of not really knowing what to do, afraid that he has overstepped, but not even sure what to do about it. For us, it seems a sort of warning to not ignore what happened, to not assume that the Earth will just keep on as it always had. It’s not a story that really packs an emotional punch but it is one full of interesting ideas, and for that it’s certainly worth checking out. Indeed!

“Retrieval” by Suzanne Walker (3687 words)

This is a story, for me, that’s about ghosts and rest, about faith and justice. And about, ultimately, family. It centers Riva, a woman who grew up in conflict, whose parents were killed for being dissidents, for fighting against a corrupt government, one that knowingly killed her father in space so that his soul couldn’t rest. The story mixes fantasy and science fiction well, creating a sort of magic around terrestrial bodies, a pull that they have on souls, that without earth to ground the dead, they face a torment in the cold of space. A torment that Riva has spent much of her life fighting to ease as a Retriever, a person who ferries the dead from their torture in space to a planet where they can rest and hopefully join the afterlife they anticipated. For Riva, it has been largely about avoiding the difficult questions in her life, about doing something that she could believe, in, but also about working to build her skills so that she could one day retrieve her father. And the story follows that occasion, as loaded and as momentous and as in some ways disastrous as it is, because it does not go as expected, and Riva has to face a lot of things about her life, about her mission, and about her father. Really, though, I appreciate that the story is about faith in such a tangible way, that Riva’s faith is supposed to make her worse at her job and yet because of how she honors it and how she worships, it allows her an added resolve to see people back to their planets, to get them out of the painful purgatory that space is for dead souls. It’s still a story that deals with distance, with the idea of space and all it means, but it’s also a very intimate story, full of sudden bouts of anger and violence and Riva’s own need to put to rest her parents’ struggle before she can fully embrace her own future. It’s interesting and just a bit haunting, and it makes for a great read!

“Dead Heroes” by Mike Buckley (5037 words)

This is a really really weird story about war and idolatry and memory. It features a group of people who live in a giant stadium in the shadows of soldiers who are supposedly out fighting the Living Forest in hopes of defeating it and...well, part of the reason the story is strange is because the memories of the people in the stadium is under assault by the Blank, which makes remembering a willful act, and those who don’t remember lose more and more. All people seem to remember, at least for the main character and his best friend, are the heroes that they worship. That they love. And this opens them to a kind of threat that is much more insidious than an invading force. Because the people of the stadium don’t really know why they’re there. They don’t know what the soldiers are fighting for, except to defeat the Forest, and even that doesn’t seem to really have a clear boundary. No one knows what it would look like, and yet these people and especially the main character and his friend, young men, are infatuated with the idea of the soldiers, with the heroes. They let their memories for other things fade so that, when things start seeming to, they find that they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. They lose sight of what is in their best interests, lose sight of right and wrong, lose sight of reasons for fighting and hope for some future that isn’t in the shadow of these violent men. What remains is a story about the danger of losing memory, of losing history, of focusing on the glory of heroes without having an understanding of what their conflict is, of what these soldiers are fighting for. It makes for a rather strange story because it never gives full answers, only shows just how dangerous it is to believe in soldiers without keeping track of what’s really going on. To me, the story becomes about how the idea of heroes can erase the much uglier realities of what’s going on, and can lead to some truly terrifying situations. It’s a dark read, and a rather interesting one. Certainly a piece to spend some time with!

“Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” by Sue Burke (10316 words)

This is a very interesting and rather unexpected story for me, unfolding as a bit of reporting covering the greatest game ever played—robot fighting. On Mars. The story acts as a sort of recap for events that have already happened, looking back at this strange undertaking that is part television, part science, part organized crime, and all about robots on Mars trying to kill each other. Kind of. Because, well, for all that it’s about a robot fight, it’s more about the build up to the fight, the drive toward the fight, and the shape that it takes. And a long, strange trip it is, fielding four different robots on Mars, designed and funded by four very different teams, with the goal to be the last bot standing and achieve victory for...well, entertainment, mostly. Bragging rights. Gambling winnings. It’s a journey that is mostly studded with excitement to be doing something, to be exploring, to be reaching into the unknown, tinged with the sort of gamesmanship that provokes a lot of exploration, people competing to be the best not out of animosity but in the spirit of pushing toward better technology and a brighter future. Of course, it’s not a story without tragedy, either, and I love how the piece combines so many different elements to create this captivating and compelling story about these teams, these people, and yes, these robots. It all weaves together so well, and in such a way that mirrors how news and history are manipulated into stories, with characters and with results. How such big things happen and how, in the end, it comes down to robot against robot for the fate of Mars. It’s strange but joyous, a bit slow but building so nicely to the ending which hits fast and which revels in this idea of robot fighting. So yeah, I will admit that I very much enjoyed the hell out of this story. It’s not really a quick read, but if you need to smile today, perhaps check this one out. A great story!

“The Catalog of Virgins” by Nicoletta Vallorani, translated by Rachel S. Cordasco (2723 words)

This story to me seems to be a strange kind of fairy tale mixed with a landscape of death and poverty. It follows a person escaping from a dangerous location out into a city, trying to complete some mission, to solve some mystery, that seems to be slowly coming together. At the same time, the story breaks with the stories of women who have been taken, who have been violated, who have been victims. They each share something and more than they know, really, as the story later reveals. And the prose has a power and a force to it, mapping this landscape of pain and torture and loss. It evokes fairy tales with talk of a giant, of Bluebeard, of women all made to suffer for some reason or another, never quite fully explained. And there is a magic to the piece as well, to the way that the main character moves, to their own loss, to the work that they’re doing, trying to find some way to overcome this story, this repeating story that’s taking so many. It’s almost difficult to tell what exactly is happening in the story, for much of it, because of how much pain defines it, framing the main character’s world and the experiences of the women that are revealed. Pain is the constant here, made by the way that the vulnerable are exploited and tortured and made into tools. The way that their lives are drained to fuel the continued comfort and presence of the worst of people. It’s part detective story, part fable, part war story, and through it the piece is sharp and relentless, the action intense, the overall feeling for me rather strange but moving, difficult, and gripping. A fine read and a great way to close out the issue’s original fiction!


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