Thursday, February 8, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #244

It’s sci-fantasy month at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which means a trio of stories featuring people and their connections to AI. Indeed, all three of the stories in this issue feature AI, and specifically ships that either developed or were designed to have sentience. These AI all relate back to the characters around them—a ghost cat, the ship’s captain, a former lover—in ways that shed light on the larger situations revealed in these settings. Which, by and large, have to do with conflict, war, and violence. Again, in each of the stories there is a simmering conflict if not outright war, and the characters are tasked with trying to protect what they can, to prevent what they can, and to save what they can from the jaws of destruction and prejudice. The themes show the danger of insular and adversarial thinking, of making the universe into Us against Them, and they do so with magic and with machines, with loss and hope and honesty. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Florent Llamas


“The Starship and the Temple Cat” by Yoon Ha Lee (3481 words)

No Spoilers: A cat named Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells and a ship named Spectral Lance find themselves on the same side of a fight in space. The piece mixes a pervasive quiet that can only come after a loss, after a crisis of what to do next. And as the action unfolds it becomes to me about moving on and retaining a drive to protect what’s important. It’s also just a wonderful story about a little ghost cat and her resilience and gumption. Not without its grimness, in the form of the many dead who inhabit the story, but a piece that definitely keeps things on the lighter side, showing a hope even after death, through friendship and penance.
Keywords: Cats, Ghosts, Sentient Ships, Penance, Poetry
Review: Okay, so I’m a sucker for cat stories. Probably no surprise there, and a story featuring a ghost cat and a sentient warship is, well...even better! The piece just does a great job of capturing a feeling of loss and loneliness at its opening, the cat with only the ghost of a temple, the ship with only a ghost of a purpose. Both of them sticking around in some ways because they refuse to completely forget the past, given into the weight of their wounds. Both of them still defiant but in much different ways, the warship now unwilling to fight, wanting instead to sing poetry in remembrance, the cat unwilling to forsake their home. But it takes finding each other and getting faced with true annihilation for them to find the direction they should channel their desires, their resolve. It’s a moment where they can both stand on their own, full autonomous and free and yet choosing to honor the past, to not drop their debts and responsibilities. And that feeling of loneliness, of fear, drops away, replaced by a focus and a plan. They act, and in their actions are able to find something like redemption, something like peace, and still have a future to live, to explore, and to grow. It’s a beautiful story that you should definitely check out!

“Elf is a Spaceship Melody” by Maurice Broaddus (13348 words)

No Spoilers: Taking place in the same universe (I think) as "At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)," which appeared in Mothership Zeta in 2016, this piece focuses on LeSony’ra, the captain of a ship on a research mission that...doesn’t go as planned. Nestled into a rather tense and action-packed story is a lot of philosophy, religion, and music theory, which makes for a deep and complex read. The story manages a deft touch with balancing the more metaphysical elements with an entertaining and tight plot, solid character work, and a musical flow. There’s a lot to unpack, from code switching to the politics of respect and intolerance to the messy impact of history, hope, and progress. Basically, I loved it!
Keywords: Music, Space, AI, Mutiny, Command, Religion
Review: The first thing that struck me about the story is the way the ships fly, mixing magic and science as music charges the means by which this ship pushes through the solar system. The second thing that struck me is that LeSony’ra’s second in command, Commander Marshall, is an asshole. The conflict is established immediately and yet what might have been a more straightforward story is (in my opinion) deliciously complicated by the burgeoning sentience of the ship’s AI Overseer and LeSony’ra’s complex relationship with the ship’s chaplain, Shepherd Dyett. What comes out of everything is, to me, a discussion about what makes people human, and what people can do with that humanity to try and usher in a better future. And, unfortunately, the missteps that people can take along the way. I love how the story treats with the ideas of what people take from history, the tricky path between falling into the same patterns, cycles, and mistakes, and taking strength from the identities forged through shared experience, pain, and joy. The story has a lot of conversations about what humanity might be, the nature of the soul, the hope for humanity, and yet for all these Big Ideas, the piece felt very grounded to me in the characters, in the situation. LeSony’ra is a mathematician and a musician, and her outlook on both, her rejection of religion, forms the lens through which the story takes place. She’s challenged in her views, constantly questioned, and yet she’s well used to being questioned, used to having to stick to her beliefs. It’s her past that has prepared her to meet the present, but to me it’s how she envisions the future that really defines her outlook and how she treats her mission. As an explorer, without a strict set of answers, because if she had a strict set of answers she might not ask the important questions. And it’s a fun story that imagines a complex future where humanity might not have learned all its lessons yet, but is still trying to make a better world. A fantastic read!

“Where the Anchor Lies” by Benjamin C. Kinney (4038 words)

No Spoilers: Eita is a veteran who fought in an old and, ultimately, losing war for her nation, bonded to a sentient warship who shared with her a connection deeper than just comrades. Years later, after having spent time as a prisoner of war and then a tool of politicians, she’s travelling back to the battlefield where she lost everything in hopes of resurrecting her lover and a war. Yearning and revealing a landscape blasted by conflict, the story delivers a touching and emotional portrait of a soldier too used to fighting, too used to thinking of the world as enemies and patriots. In many ways, for me it’s about believing that the only thing that can draw people together is conflict, is Us vs Them, and how dangerous and disingenuous that argument is.
Keywords: AI, Connections, Propaganda, War, Corruption, Journalism
Review: The landscape captures a lot about the story—the desert that is left in the wake of war, that carries with it a certain kind of beauty but also a desolation that was brought on by war, by hatred, by violence. It’s a landscape that’s haunted by this past conflict, which stands with a sort of ethereal power, that is distant and that Eita wants to reconnect to. For me, what she wants from that reconnecting is to revive the simplicity of her time in the military, the love she had with her ship, the purpose she had that was clear and immediate. And yet in seeking to resurrect that nationalist surge, she finds that she’s making decisions that push her away from her ideals. She’s embracing a false unity in order to try and recapture her past, to reclaim her love from this desert. Especially in the current political climate, it’s a story to me very much concerned with complicity, with the rhetoric of war and prejudice. In making this false pilgrimage for the benefit of a tyrant, though, Eika accidentally makes a real pilgrimage, and does find a revelation in the desert, seeing what war creates, the destruction and the loss. And through her own desperation to reach back and correct the tragedies of her own life, she has helped create new ones. It’s a moving story, not exactly subtle, imo, in its messaging but again given our current situation I don’t think it needs to be. And it makes for a compelling read!


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