Thursday, June 14, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #141

June brings three novelettes and two short stories to Clarkesworld, with an interesting look at humanity, alien worlds, and human connection. For each of the stories, the setting is another character to contend with. Either in the form of an oppressive state, a far-flung world, the cold of space, or even an Earth that-might-have-been. And the characters in the story must navigate these worlds, surviving the many dangers, seeking to find connection where there seems only hostility. It’s a goal that is not always successful, and is occassionally laced with tragedy, but there’s also some hope to be found as well. That sometimes, even against the most overwhelming of situations, people can find each other. By and large it’s not a very cheery collection of stories, but it’s an interesting mix and I’ll get right to reviewing them!

Art by Sean Andrew Murray

“A Space of One’s Own” by Steve Rasnic Tem (4775 words)

No Spoilers: Cedric lives in a city ruled by queues and by efficiency, where everyone stands almost everywhere because there is no room to sit. Cedric goes through a drone-like existence, a happy bee that moves from one place to another with never enough time to sit and relax, or recreate, and less and less ability to do so, because promoting those things wouldn’t be efficient. It’s a bleak setting because of how familiar it can seem, because of how much it plays into the human machine, the way that we have organized ourselves into workers and bosses, only with workers having to make more and more sacrifices in order to hold onto even the meager existence they have. It’s a claustrophobic, wrenching read that leaves so many questions, and the lingering smell of dreams burning.
Keywords: Crowding, Employment, Apartments, Loss, Sleep
Review: Okay so I couldn’t help but think of the Star Trek (TOS) episode where Kirk gets taken to that overpopulation planet where everyone is just standing there because there’s no room. Here so much has been given over to AI to fit more and more people into the smallest possible space, all the while their rights are chipped away at, leaving them less and less, all because the alternative is to deal with the real problems, and seek to make improvements that will benefit everyone. Cedric doesn’t do much thinking about his situation, even though it has already claimed his wife, who disappeared a while ago and appears now only as a face on a picture, as clothes that will show up and vanish. The story reveals Cedric’s lack of outrage or willingness to act, showing how instead he is just exhausted, chasing constantly after the promise of rest, of stability, when stability isn’t only not likely, but almost contractually impossible. He’s been sold a future that doesn’t exist, been sold a present that doesn’t exist. And it’s a difficult and dense read that finds Cedric dreaming of some way out, really only there able to find space and even then, probably only until someone finds a way to control his dreams as well. Definitely a story to spend some time with!

“Vault” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (9784 words)

No Spoilers: Chenguang is a woman mapping a derelict world for new lanes of transport, for new human exploitations. It’s a planet with a sad history of ecological disaster, war, and abandonment, but Chenguang hopes that by helping to map it, she’ll be able to cash in enough to help her sister into a better life. Along with her partner on the mission, Lukas, she must contend with the demands of powering her suit, of surviving the hostile environment so far from help. Sparse and yet full of wonder and hope, the story builds a mystery and then explodes with things happening. It’s a piece that could have been about isolation, and distance, but instead is very much about connection and reaching for a better future. One where everything isn’t a blasted wasteland. One with water, and humans, and so much more.
Keywords: Exploration, Terraforming, Solar Power, Acrobatics, Accidents, First Contact
Review: This story gives a great view of a world that is both alien and human. That has been deeply touched by humanity’s damaging hand and yet retains something inhuman in it. That still has secrets, and life, and potential. And I love how Chenguang approaches it, how she traverses it, in bursts and spins, but being drawn toward something. Toward a truth that hasn’t been recognized yet. Toward a confrontation that she couldn’t have known to expect. And I also love her relationship with water, to this thing that is so very human and yet has been mostly lost. It doesn’t exist in the same way anymore in this setting, and the result is strange, because for all that space is so different from Earth, it’s hard to imagine humans without large bodies of water. That central loss, the loss of habitat and ecosystem, is what pushes Chenguang forward on her journey, hoping for a time when the water will return, when humans will find a way to recapture what they once had. And it’s that hope that keeps a lot of the action of the story going forward, because it’s not just her hope. It turns out it’s the hope of an alien race that hasn’t been acknowledged before, one that she and Lukas end up meeting. Communicating with. Which makes this a first contact story as well, and one where maybe humanity has learned some from their past mistakes. It’s a fascinating read and a fine story!

“The Cosonaut’s Caretaker” by Dora Klindžić (14179 words)

No Spoilers: Arkady is a military man who has lost a lot—his wife and son, his leg, and his military career. What he holds to as he manages a patrol ship far from any action, is his dignity. His pride. And his last two crew members. That changes when he’s forced to accept the services of ArCa, an AI designed to counsel him with his loss and help him to recover. Of course, if that was all that was going on, you might get the impression that it was a slower piece. It’s not. There’s action, of the Things Blowing Up in Space variety, and a tight pacing that drive this story toward its end. It has a damaged aesthetic, as if coated in dents and old blood stains, and it definitely does a lot of interesting things with the space opera idea. Here is a story about family and recovery, grief and survival, all centered on a little beaten up ship limping through the void.
Keywords: Space, Trauma, AI, Family, Trade, Counseling
Review: There’s a lot going on in this story, which begins as something of a gothic piece (injured and guarded man in his isolated ship, haunted by his past and now the reminder of it in the form of this AI). And yet as the story progresses it loses a lot of its brooding feel for me and get more and more tense but also more and more free. Arkady is in a glum place at the opening of the story, and I like how as everything moves forward, even as he experiences more loss and has to do some very dangerous and harrowing things, it’s like he’s coming awake. He’s finally starting to put the deaths of his wife and child behind him and realize that he still has one living child and still has a lot of life yet to live. At the same time, I felt the story leaned a bit hard on a lot of masculine tropes that I’ve seen a lot of and I would have liked to see a bit more deviation from the soldier/man not dealing with his feelings (over a dead wife) and being helped through his grief by a feminine AI (also I was a little uncomfortable with the AI being so casually gendered feminine because of the role she plays and also how she must sacrifice herself so that the main guy character can learn something). Especially when alternate expressions of masculinity (his daughter’s new husband) don’t exactly get treated well. The story does a good job with what it’s trying to do, though, and it has a number of charming moments as well as some intense action. For those looking for a military science fiction with an older (and disabled) protagonist dealing with his trauma, then this is probably the story for you. For me, I liked a lot of what it did, but it hit some notes that I have a personal aversion to. I definitely recommend that people check out the story, though, and see what they think about it. Indeed.

“Your Multicolored Life” by Xing He, translated by Andy Dudak (8276 words)

No Spoilers: Zhang Hua and You Ruo are two men escaping two very different enslavements by robot overlords. For Zhang Hua, life is filled with forced labor and torture, with censorship and casual murder. He lives because he works, but he’s also planning on how to escape. Through force and through trickery he manages to get away, but without a plan beyond that things look a bit bleak. You Ruo, on the other hand, is from a place where robots controlled a lot of what he could do but didn’t exactly abuse him. They put limits, but were actually very lenient and considerate of his feelings and desires. The one thing they wouldn’t allow was letting him leave. Through ingenuity and logic, though, he is able to escape. And when he comes upon Zhang Hua, the two strike up a strange truce/friendship as they travel together. And I love how the story shows them seeing in the other’s situation something that they want. FOr You Ruo, a population perhaps willing to revolt. For Zhang Hua, a place of plenty where he might rest and be treated well. It’ s a piece that wanders a bit, but does a great job exploring what it means to be free, and how humans approach the idea of freedom.
Keywords: Robots, Enslavement, Freedom, Control, Revolution
Review: For me so much of this story comes down to what we define freedom as. For those who have abundance, freedom can often feel like it means the ability to do anything at all. And any restrictions on that becomes a wrong done, an injustice. For those who have very little, who are most at risk, freedom can often mean just having enough food and space, having a freedom from pain and abuse. Certainly the two characters of this story approach the idea of freedom very differently, and with very different results (aside from death, I guess, which they both share). Zhang Hua just wants to eb in a place where he can eat, where he can escape the constant worry and threats that surround him. By entering into You Ruo’s world, he gets that. And I love that it does actually make him happier. It helps. For him, that is freedom. And aside from the whole dying thing (which is more because of the trauma he suffered), he does very well with his choice. You Ruo, though, in entering Zhang Hua’s world in hopes of starting a revolution, has very little understanding of what hunger is and what it might prompt people to do. He’s impulsive and, moreso, completely sure of himself, which just isn’t a good look. It’s hardly a surprise what happens next, and it’s a rather bleak picture the story conjures. Still, I like the way that it shows these two very different escapes, and where they lead, and that sometimes freedom isn’t about the absence of laws, but rather the presence of justice. A wonderful read!

“Heron of Earth” by Vajra Chandrasekera (2138 words)

No Spoilers: A woman who was once part of a sort of collective posthuman god-entity flying through the universe is now on Earth, though one without much of a human presence. It’s a world that has been rebuilt, not to be like it was but to be like it might have been if humans hadn’t been around to impact it. And this woman, who takes her name and some of her mannerisms from different birds, is the last of the project that was charged with getting Earth back to this strange manicured state. Wild but ordered. And, alone there in a tower, hunting birds with a bow and arrow, she remains, haunted and haunting in this strange quasi-nostalgic backdrop. The piece is quiet and weird and fluid, with the truth of what really happened with the narrator and her team slowly coming clearer.
Keywords: Birds, Posthumans, Isolation, Terraforming, Communication
Review: There’s a strange mood to this story, the setting a mix of far future and alternate past. The narrator is fluid, flitting from bird to bird, settled and yet unsettled in a tower in an Earth devoid of other human life. I consider the work to confront nostalgia, and the past, and the human desire to be cleaned of sin and trespass. Here is a universe where humanity has grown beyond the Earth, has become beings vast and complex and godlike. And yet there is still this desire to return to Earth and fix it up. To return it to a state contemporary with late human civilization but with humanity absent. As if it could make up for the harm that humanity did the world. As if it erases that wrong. And here the narrator is engaged in more than that, for even as she seeks to create this blank slate for humans she has also perhaps committed the cardinal sin, killing the rest of her party so that she can stay, so that she can have this world to herself, this experience. Because she wants to remain and not return to what she was. And it’s compelling to follow her through slowly revealing what has happened, and to wonder about the strange footprint she finds. It’s like she waiting to be found and punished. Like coming back to this planet has awakened something in her that she doesn’t want to go to sleep again. And whether that is dark and violent or bright and freeing seems to be a matter of perspective. And maybe it’s also a matter of feeling something so complciated and strange that it can’t quite be expressed cleanly. Whatever the case, I feel the story does a good job of exploring this world, this alternate Earth, and how the narrator is dealing with being an individual. It’s a strange but moving read!


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