Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #137

February brings four stories to Clarkesworld Magazine (2 short stories, 1 novelette, 1 novella) that explore humanity’s future, its hopes, and its failures. The pieces all explore future in which humanity has suffered great losses. For almost all of them, the loss comes from space, from forces that wreck humanity’s satellite net, or fry all its electronics, or see humanity set up on a distant and hostile world, or just manage to take out one person’s stored data. Whatever the case, the stories look at misfortune and winter, with people who find themselves (through no real fault of their own) living in times they very much would rather have avoided. And showing how they deal with it, how they deal with corruption and with the injustices small and large that plague them. It’s an issue with a lot of action that moves with a power and tight pacing and I should just get to those reviews already!

Art by Artur Sadlos


“Deep Down in the Cloud” by Julie Novakova (4930 words)

No Spoilers: Mariana is a young woman who feels old thanks to a rapidly changing world that has moved from an open internet to an oppressively closed one. Along with two others, she takes part in a mission to maybe change that. The action takes place mainly under water, and it gives the piece a strange, heavy feel, as the character move in slow motion, the weight and pressure around them quite literal as well as figurative. It’s a tense, moving piece about resistance, hope, and freedom.
Keywords: Diving, Data, Dystopia, Sacrifice, Super Soldiers
Review: I like how the story builds up the rather plausible vision of a world where data control has gotten a bit out of hand in the face of the collapse of the global satellite net, the world economy completely changed in a very small amount of time and people now stuck with no privacy, no access, and not an awful lot of hope. I mean, less than we tend to have now. Mariana is a person who keenly feels the loss that this change has brought, the narrowing of opportunity, the upending of the goals and values that she had been taught would pull her through. In many ways she been sacrificed to this new future, left to fend for herself in dangerous waters, told that it’s on her, that she has to make up for the disaster that’s occurred, because it can’t be expected that those at the top should give up so that suffering is kept to a minimum. The piece itself moves forward with a driving pace, and yet for that I love how the environment of underwater is one with a constant resistance, something that Mariana and the others have to fight through. It’s not easy, and the story gets violence and nearly hopeless at times. But it never despairs, never gives in to the pressure. For me at least the piece is about the urge toward freedom, the urge to fight back against corruption. The urge that corporations and institutions and governments might try to contain, but that remains strong and indomitable. And it’s a story about change, and how fast and profoundly it can happen. For the worse, certainly, but also perhaps for the better, where even if the risks are huge, the rewards might be well worth it. A wonderful read!

“Obliteration” by Robert Reed (4971 words)

No Spoilers: Kleave is a man who experiences not just one, but a string of unlikely and unfortunate events that leave him bereft. Obliterated, at least in one sense. And without much he can do about it. Which prompts him to interrogate his life a bit, and his decisions, and his future. The piece is all about memory, both human and computer, and the ways that people seek to capture memories in meaningful ways. Slow and alive with a numb loss, the piece is interesting and not entirely concerned with giving answers in the end.
Keywords: Memories, Recording, Virtual Reality, Technology, Bad Luck
Review: In some ways I’d say this story is about Kleave losing a bit of technology that had completely integrated into most areas of his life, that he had come to depend on. And for me a lot of the focus on the story is the morality of that, of being human and becoming, essentially, part machine. And what is gained in such an exchange and what is lost. It’s a story that could perhaps have very easily drifted into some “kids these days” territory wrt technology and memories, the ways that people are uploading a lot of their lives online, using that to catalogue a lot of what, in the past, would have been lost. There’s a lot going on in the story, and I do feel it gives the subject a thorough examination. Kleave, because of his loss, reacts with a sort of numbness because his loss isn’t entirely tangible. It’s losing part of himself, and he has to decide whether, in some ways, that loss might be a good thing. He meets people who definitely think that way, and yet he sees as well that even without the most modern (or futuristic) tech for capturing memory, humans have been engaged in similar activity for a long time. What he seems to find, to me, is not that capturing memory is “good” or “bad” but rather that he’s been personally moving through his life as too much an observer, a passenger, and that he wants to take a more active role in living. Which is an interesting message. For my tastes, I found it hard to parse some of the interactions between Kleave and his partner, Doobie, which for some reason just didn’t sit entirely well with me, but I do think the story manages a complex look at the almost cyborg nature of memory and the ways in which that can impact not just our minds but our relationships as well. At the very least I think it’s worth checking out to see what you can take away from it. Indeed!

“Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (18059 words)

No Spoilers: Mack is a person who doesn’t really fit in at the human settlement on Dust, a world chosen by a colony of rationalists to set up a society based on science and reason. The colony is generations old now, getting ready to enter a strange and dangerous winter, and Mack is tasked with guiding a small group out to collect supplies sent from the original colonists—supplies that have been delayed because of the speeds the original vessels traveled at. The piece begins simply enough, capturing Mack’s disposition toward the world and the original purpose of the colony and showing the different factions at work. Things start going very wrong on the mission, though, and the piece shifts to something of a science fiction survival horror, and holy fuck does it succeed at telling a tense, unnerving tale of what’s waiting in this alien light.
Keywords: Colonization, Rationality, Aliens, Hostile Territory, Survival
Review: Well this got intense as fuck. Basically, if you don’t want to get spoiled, just wait for the movie of this one to come out, because fuck it would be a travesty if it didn’t. The world building is great, populating this hostile world and its strange “winters” with colonists who are a mix of conservative rationalists, optimistic reformers, and Mack, who’s mostly just jaded, sick of the internal politics of the colony and bitter at the original settlers for picking a planet that seems determined to make life difficult for humans. Just the extent to which the planet is hostile, though, isn’t really something the settlers remember first hand any more. This will be the third “winter” on the planet, and though the first wiped out 2/3 of the original settlers, the second winter was weathered pretty much without incident. As long as the humans stay in the caves. As long as no one goes out in the dark. At first the story seemed to me like it would be about facing a natural landscape, rocks and sun, hunger and thirst and injury. I was not entirely prepared for what happened (though the story does let you know some Bad Shit is coming down). And I like that the story essentially becomes about hope and about survival and how conflict and conservatism (whether rational or religious) tends to eat the best and brightest. Mack has seen it too often, the loss that came from this decision to move to this world. And the story really only confirms that there needs to be a balance, needs to be people working to bridge the gaps between ideologies, to bring people together because without that, people either die alone or remain huddled in their caves, not able to understand the world around them. A world that can be pure nightmare fuel. But that could still be understood and perhaps adapted to with study and application and open minds. So yeah, it’s a tense and terrifying story that does a great job exploring this world and the people on it. Go check it out!

“The Power is Out” by A Que, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon (12243 words)

No Spoilers: Mediocre has survived the end of civilization, a storm that disrupts all electronics, and the resulting regression into lawlessness, and the resulting mellowing into a sort of numb status quo. Along with Fortune, his former boss, and three others, Mediocre wanders a ruined city and contemplates moving south, where things might be better. Before he and the others can leave, though, there are a few...complications. Strange and with a certain almost ridiculous air, the story still manages some sharp critiques about hope and movement and the reactions people have to impending doom. Bleak and grim, it doesn’t really paint a great picture of humanity, but then, it might not be inaccurate, and it shows the dangers of mediocrity in the face of extreme situations.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Survival, Gangs, Food
Review: This story does an interesting job of imagining a world that is both post global disaster and yet in some ways pre-destruction. For this group of five people, at least, they are alive despite the conditions, but are faced with the prospect that winter is coming, and with it might also come the death they’ve avoided for so long. In deciding to go south, they’re making a decision to try and hope that there might be a better place, that they might have some prospect to really recovering from what’s happened to them. And yet the story is about how they manage to not go south, how they linger, how they fight, how they die. Given that their names are so tied to ideas and traits, in some ways the story is looking at what might survive, or what has survived all the damage that humanity has endured to this point. For me, at least, Mediocre does embody mediocrity, this urge to just obey his boss, to be lazy and try to sort of fail through life, almost surprised that he’s alive, never really able to make decisions for himself, manipulated by everyone. It shows how even in this time and place where people really should be paying attention and seeking to look ahead, they’re stuck in their old roles, pursuing the new money that has cropped up. Pursuing stockpiles of food in hopes that they can succeed even if everyone else does not. And the story reveals just how fragile it all is, just how violent and mindless it can be, and just how huge Mediocre’s failure is. That he loses everything, and eventually just doesn’t act when he knew he should. When he wanted to. And yet. And yet. It’s a weird story and some of it isn’t really pleasant to read. It’s not an optimistic piece to me, at least, and it makes it a rather tough one to enjoy. There’s a lot of violence and the depictions of women for me made me a bit hesitant about parts of the piece. Still, I think it’s worth spending some time with if the themes appeal to you. And it does close out an issue that has been in part about winter and decay.



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