Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #135

The December Clarkesworld Magazine is all about oppression and corruption, about settings that where hope is a fragile, dangerous thing and where the characters are living in equal parts running from their lack of options and toward a future they’re not sure exists. They are dealing with the hurt and despair from having to live in situations that seem crushing, that seem all-consuming, where they don’t really have the power to fight back, where their tools have been made by their oppressors and where any resistance to the situation seems pointless. And yet the stories also look at what resistance in these situations looks like. The stories explore how these characters survive and try to thrive despite everything. Whether by finding an exit they didn’t think possible or trying to make connections in order to make change through cooperation, the stories use their SF elements to explore what it means to hope when hope itself has been twisted into a tool of oppression. To the reviews!

Art by Peter Mohrbacher

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (4814 words)

This story carries with is a weight, a weight that pushes down on the main character, Mac, as he works a drilling team on Mars. His exile from Earth comes as a flight, as an escape, or at least that’s the hope—an escape from the memory of death and loss and pain that won’t leave Mac’s mind, his memory. He’s found something of a home on Mars, with people he gets along with, but he’s still unable to get past what’s happened to him because he’s not facing it. Because he’s still running and it’s something so large that it doesn’t leave room to be ignored. It forces the issue, and as it does it ruins what Mac was trying to build, the connections he was trying to make. It poisons his intentions and his actions, putting him back in the position of fleeing or facing what he’s done. And part of what I very much appreciate about the story, aside from an excellent mood and drowning feel that captures so much of Mac’s loss and desperation and despair, is that the story doesn’t really judge him for running from what’s happened to him. His problem isn’t just that he’s running from a past that was traumatic, it’s that he doesn’t really have a support network to help him through this—this world of exploration on Mars is still one that allows terrible things to happen, where Mac’s options are incredibly limited and the act of forgiveness takes a back seat to punishment. Mac is punished, by himself and by others, while very few people (really, just one) seem to care about him, his wellbeing, and what he’s feeling. That the single point of concern is not enough to break through the otherwise broken system and Mac’s own guilt is not surprising, even as it’s tragic as hell. Mac seems to ask at what point he becomes irredeemable, or at what point he became irredeemable, as he seems unable to really make up for make relatively small mistakes in the past (borrowing money from violent people), each new turn just punishing him more and more. It’s a story about how the promise of Mars, the distance of Mars, isn’t enough in the face of corruption, exploitation, and “personal responsibility.” At least for me it’s a story about the weight of the past in a world, in a universe, where tragedy has a gravity of its own, a momentum that takes much more than one person to stop. It’s sad, but it’s also powerful and poignant, and it’s very much worth checking out!

“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (5595 words)

This story imagines a future where technology has reached the point where people can go to a place where they can receive a new, mechanical body. Where their consciousnesses can be put into machines, perhaps uploaded into a virtual world. And Mara, out of work and crushed by the prospects, or really the lack of prospects, open to her, considers this option as one of the last open to her. The stories does a great job of examining a number of things, including showing how hopeless it can be for someone who is young and who finds themself not only without a clear road forward but with no support network, no option of trying for something different. Suddenly realizing that your life is something of a dead end is something that I feel a lot of people understand, and perhaps especially people like Mara, young enough to be underrepresented in government, old enough that there’s really not much that you can do unless you can lean on resources of family or other such networks that the government isn’t providing. I know in my own life it often feels like so much of my life was working for a lie, that I was tricked and then blamed for being tricked, like it’s my fault I was a child and brainwashed into thinking that things would be okay if I did X, Y, and Z. That it should justify how there’s really no option, that people get stuck and are told to with it. To just keep working for a system that is making some people very rich but never those at the bottom. And Mara feels this, feels the pain of those around her as well as her own pain, her own despair, feels how people treat her like she can somehow fix her situation despite how hard she’s tried, despite everything. And so this option, this way out, is something she wants, but something again that she’s denied, because people can still make money off of her, because the system still wants to exploit her and giving her an option means that won’t happen. And in that it’s a story about hope and about how much people need hope, or else they will take other means to escape. It’s a story very much in conversation, in my opinion, with what it’s like to be a Millennial, or perhaps just a young person in general in a time and place where corruption is winning. In any event, I expect many people will have strong negative reactions to this story, but I personally very much appreciate it, and love how it ends with this triumph and hope, this step into the unknown, even if there’s still the lingering question at the end of what comes next. It’s still a wonderful read!

“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (8363 words)

This is another story about an oppressive situation and a person hoping to escape it. Indeed, all the stories in the issue so far have done a great job of engaging with the feeling of being trapped, of being slowly suffocated by a world, by a way of life that doesn’t really offer much hope of release. From Babe, the only name of the narrator of this story, hope is a fragile thing, pinned on a man, a racer named Chromium Jim, who really isn’t the best of bets. Really the story follows Babe as she moves, as she keeps moving because for her to stay still is to die. She throws herself at a future with a sort of abandon and resignation, tired of the life and the role she must play while also knowing that as long as she keeping moving she doesn’t have to face the past or the bleak present that she finds herself in. She lives for the brief moments of escape and release, the story making such good use of the idea of road racing, going around and around a track, winning or not but still stuck in this circle, this cycle. She goes with because the thrill is there some and because she really doesn’t have any other alternatives. Until she does. And that’s really what I like about this story, that it’s a lot about this life that she living, the dull hum of it, the grind that is wearing her down, but it’s also about the future and about hope and about finding something to escape the cycle. It sets this up with a tantalizing promise at the beginning of the story, one that’s held just out of reach, that seems almost forgotten until it returns I like how that works, how it emphasizes the way the cycle draws the color out of the story, and how powerful and rejuvenating finding that hope, that future, that miracle can be. It made some of the story rather draining for me, but with the ending it turned nicely and the ending is a breath of fresh air, the feeling of finally having the means to make a needed change. It’s a fine read!

“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (5219 words)

This is a complex and wonderful re-imaging of the story of the Minotaur and Labyrinth, set deep in space where a paranoid king has imprisoned his powerful wife and daughter as well as a son who has the head of a bull. It’s the story of that daughter and son, Sadne and Erion, yearning for escape and yet, in some ways, comfortable in their solitude. At the least, being apart from other people isn’t something that touches them as some might expect. They are happy with each other, happy with the freedom that solitude affords them. But even so, even liking the situation (more or less), they are not safe. It’s a great way of showing that there really is no safety or respite when the system is run by someone insecure in his own power, paranoid because he’s aware of the wrong he’s done and fears reprisal for it. Instead of living a life he can be proud of, the tyrant king goes to further and further lengths to punish those who he fears represent a threat to him. So that Sadne has to plan some way of getting out, hoping to escape with her brother away and beyond so that they can be free. The story is a tinged with tragedy, though, as the myth behind the story propels things toward violence and loss, toward bitter partings and the resolve not just for freedom, but for justice. And I like how the story moves in that direction, how it cuts Sadne off from good options. She tries so hard to keep everything together, to hope that there is a way to get out, all the while she’s not the one who ultimately makes the choice, and the fallout leaves its wounds deep in both the characters and me as a reader, shattering the notion that there will be a happily ever after, leaving only the gravity of violence, and the need for some breaking of this cycle of paranoia and abuse. It’s a story that shows that in these corrupt systems safety is never a choice, is never even an option. Anything less than open opposition really just allows the abuse to continue. Which is a hard lesson, as Sadne finds out, but a rather necessary one as well. And it makes for a great read!

“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (1627 words)

This story has a heavy sense of poetry with it as well as distance. It follows a couple as they deal with being apart, not just physically but mentally distant, the narrator launched out into a whole different kind of experience, able to communicate back but the gap between them wide and wider, yawning with the mouth of galaxies. And while the exact circumstances of their parting and hopeful reuniting are decidedly science fiction, there’s something much more domestic about their problems, the way that they can’t really bring themselves to talk about what they want out of fear that they will hur the other, that they will scare the other away. Both are afraid of being alone and desperate for the other and yet both are stubborn in their own ways, not wanting to admit their exact feelings because it would mean being completely vulnerable, and that is something that they aren’t quite willing to do. Instead, their is a language to their silences, to what they won’t way or can’t say, to the way they need each other and the ache they have when they’re apart. I like how the story shows the characters together, intimate and close, feeling bodies pressed close even as there is this internal distance that’s threatening to push them completely apart. The language of the story is strange and poetic, the exact situation concealed, shown only in outlines that to me underscore that for these people it’s not about this mission. It’s about each other, about what they are to each other and how they must act. It’s about compromises and being together and trying to find a future with someone, hoping that they want it back. But it’s also a story about longing and loneliness, about distance and the gulf between people. As heartwarming as the sentiments are, I feel also a deep sadness from it, about a failure to overcome, about waiting and waiting and hoping for a future that might never come. The ending leaves things, in my mind, a but open as to “what happens next,” and in that openness is every fear and insecurity that these people fear, hoping for something to happen, trembling because they don’t know if they’ll be able to. It’s a tender read that you should spend some time with!


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