Monday, January 22, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #136

January brings five original stories to Clarkesworld Magazine (3 short stories, 2 novelettes), and for me the issue seems to draw heavily on mysteries. At least, many of the stories involve characters dealing with either having been lied to, or finding that their understanding of the world is fundamentally flawed. Or, really, a combination. For most of the stories, the main characters are driven by a desire to figure out what exactly is going on around them—how they’re being manipulated, how they’re being used. For many, knowledge is kept away from them, and for many of them it’s kept away indefinitely. The few that manage to cut through the barriers between them and an understanding of what’s happening to them do seem to find a measure of healing in that, seem able to move on and forward. Those that can’t, who are kept from knowing the truth, fare less well, locked in someone else’s agenda, stripped of their ability to consent to their own lives. There’s a lot to explore, so let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Artur Sadlos

“A World to Die For” by Tobias S. Buckell (9729 words)

No Spoilers: A woman named Chenra is part of a quasi- bike gang that patrols a stretch of blighting sand and dust, eeking out a living from tolls and what they can scavenge, but all that changes when she finds herself at the center of a much larger conflict. Full of action, violence, and a growing realization of what’s really going on, it remains a blood-pumping read that looks at exploitation and hope.
Keywords: Climate Change, Exploitation, Invasion, Resistance, Alternate Realities
Review: This story for me comes down to the idea of exploitation. Of people, but perhaps more of the natural world. The piece builds up this multiverse where realities are judged based on how well they treated the planet. Some worlds are hells of runaway climate change, where human life is barely possible, and definitely on the decline. In other worlds, though, there is bounty, clean air, and a balance between humanity and the planet. Chenra’s world is much more on the former side of things, feeling a bit like Mad Max and putting her in a gunner’s chair. She’s found by an outsider to her world, though, because of something going on, because an invasion is going on and a fight is being waged and Chenra, at least in some ways, is at the center of it. I appreciate that the story is told in second person, where the reader is put into Chenra’s shoes, because it makes the story a bit more personal. Not that the message about climate change, about the need to act to preserve the natural world, wouldn’t have worked without it, but with the second person I feel the connection is made stronger, where the reader must imagine their own parallel selves, and how they can do to make their own world worth fighting for. It’s a fun and rather thrilling roller coaster of a story, mixing big ideas with big action, and it’s a great way to kick off Clarkesworld’s 2018.

“Say it Low, then Loud” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (5209 words)

No Spoilers: Efosa fights in a war, in space, bringing colony to new frontiers, but the real battle for him is with his family, the way they shun him for his decision, the way they deny him his tradition and his place within their context. Strange but profound and haunting, the piece looks at the personal cost of war, and the way that looking for absolutes and whole numbers can mean missing nuance and complexity.
Keywords: War, Drones, Family, Math, PTSD
Review: This is something of a strange story, the prose steeped in math and revolving around a war that’s never exactly explained. Efosa is a soldier, and yet his conflict is hazy for all that he prefers the solidity of whole numbers, and I like how it goes to imply that war, for all that it seems to promise certainty and simplicity, rarely does. Efosa finds himself in a world that is suddenly without context. And I love how the story handles that, how Efosa finds himself struggling without his family, without a way to make sense of his own actions or anything else. It’s like a part of him is amputated, and though it comes from his own actions, his own desire for neat lines and a steady wage, there’s still the tragedy that this war has seduced him and then transformed him. Giving him a new name and pushing him to perform while he loses more and more of himself—it’s a gripping and poignant take on war and on the way that isolation leads to the fracturing of his mental well-being. And really so much of the story comes back to math, is infused with math and the desire for something to be neat. And I like how the story slowly complicates that, allowing Efosa to slowly come to terms with that desire within himself, and recognizes it as a lack, as a failure to account and appreciate the incomplete, the imaginary. But for all that Efosa is changed by what happens, I also feel that the story does a great job of holding to the hope that he can still learn, that he can find his way back, can re-contextualize himself, and begin to heal and move forward and away from war. An excellent read!

“Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts (6447 words)

No Spoilers: The Agency for the Care of Unassociated Female Minors just got a new resident, and for Ghost, who has been at the Agency for six years, it means a break from the routine, and maybe a chance to figure out a bit more of what’s happened to all of them.
Keywords: Foster Care, Orphans, CW- Abuse, Memories
Review: This story opens on four girls, all orphans. Three of them: Ghost, Flash, and Whisper, are all lifers at the Agency, none of them wanted by the families looking to fill in the gaps left by the same deadly earthquake that took the girls’ parents. Years pass and adoption seems an impossibility. For the girls, it’s an added blow because they’ve been told that memories that were erased when they were taken, memories of their families before the quake, will only be returned at age 18. Except that the new girl, Princess, seems to have kept all her memories. It’s something that eats its way into the heart of the story, and makes for a very uncomfortable, and complex read. Because for me the story is a lot about trauma and about harm, about how these girls have been hurt and how their hurt defines who they are. For Ghost and the lifers, having no memories means all they are is the system. Princess is different, and yet the story seems to ask if she’s better off, or worse, for remembering what happened to her. And this is a dark and wrenching read, not least of which because it shows just how these people have been twisted by the system, hurt and then not allowed to put themselves back together, swept away and forgotten instead of anyone trying to help them. It’s a story that might retain a bit of hope at the end, that sometimes moving forward means starting over, means burning everything so that a new growth can happen, but it’s not a happy read. Still, I recommend people check this out and struggle with the weight of what happens. A gutting read!

“A Cigarette Burn In Your Memory” by Bo Balder (4221 words)

No Spoilers: A private detective named Gouda takes a missing persons case in a world that seems to be regressing technologically and is full of people who can’t remember what’s happened. Strange and with a great building mystery, the explores what might have happened, and what makes solving the mystery so difficult. 
Keywords: Memory, Technology, Regression, Missing Persons, Mystery
Review: What hooked me into the story was the mystery of it, the question that Gouda seems to keep at her heart about what happened. What happened two years ago that no one can remember, and that seems to be actively preventing people from putting together the puzzle pieces. Gouda is a detective, which means that she has a tendency to question, and yet she keeps finding clues that her memory loss isn’t isolated to two years ago, that she’s done so much work in this new status quo to figure out what’s happened but has just...forgotten it. Which makes for a rather chilling read, Gouda wanting to find out the truth and the truth slipping away, pulled away by an unseen hand that then makes sure to cover its tracks. But I love the picture that we as readers get that Gouda as a character cannot hold onto. That something huge has happened—that something has crashed to Earth and left its mark, and then began hiding. That people can’t remember certain kinds of technology, though they can remember some things about what’s been lost. Airplanes. The internet. And even then, it’s like what’s happened is still working backwards, which works into the title, which I just love. That idea of something burning, that the memories are still curling at the edges, the flame alive, pushing things back and back in order to make humanity unable to stop what’s happening. It’s a mystery that never really gets solved definitively but there’s enough clues that the picture is huge and terrifying and I just like how the story gets there, so full of confusion, so full of the completely understandable human tendency to want to put the puzzle pieces together, though in this case that very action triggers...something. It’s a bit of a weird story but also just a great read!

“The Lighthouse Girl” by Baoshu, translated by Andy Dudak (8166 words)

No Spoilers: Rourou is a young girl keeping a diary as she ages, chronicling her growing awareness that something about herself, her father, and her past...don’t add up. Tense and with a touch of the sinister, the story twists and turns, keeping the reader guessing right to the end about what’s really happened, and what happens next.
Keywords: Regeneration, Science!, Genetics, Immortality, Family
Review: This story has a nice building feel to it, thanks in large part to the frame of the diary, where we’re following Rourou from some of her earliest memories. And in some ways right away there’s something a bit off about what’s happening, the seeds of mystery that will sprout and bloom as Rourou grows. And I like how the story keeps things mysterious, keeps everything rather plausible with each new explanation of what has happened. This happens both with the rather benign falsehoods earlier in the story and the rather extreme falsehoods later. And with each new revelation of what’s happened, of what the truth might be, we get a compounding of the core harm that’s been done in the story, which for me becomes about not letting go, and not caring enough to ask for and receive consent. For me, at least, the story’s core darkness, the tragedy of it, is the way everyone thinks that a lie is going to work. Despite the fact that it doesn’t, and these people have lived with the failure of it, they keep on hoping that their lies will somehow turn into truths based on desire alone. It makes for the heartbreaking final reveal of the story, and the lingering injustice of what Rourou has had to live with and will continue to live with. At least, I feel that until someone breaks the cycle of lies, and really tries to think of what is best of Rourou as a whole person and not just a child, she’ll never be able to escape what’s happening. From that first time when Ling Yong decided not to respect the wishes of a woman who had made herself clear on what she wanted, the trajectory of the story was decided, and it’s not a happy one. It is, however, a very effective story that raises a lot of interesting ideas and keeps the mystery intense and rather creepy. A nice way to close out the issue!


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