Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #143

Three short stories (including one translation) and two novelettes round out Clarkesworld’s August, with a bit more fantasy that I was expecting. Or what would have been more fantasy than I was expecting, except that a number of the stories this month play with that in subtle ways, slowly revealing that what seems like magic is actually something different, something much more technological in nature. Not that the issue is completely sci fi, but I feel like the uniting thread is more that each story plays with expectations in interesting ways, and leading the reader through worlds where they must piece together the rules, only to occasionally find that the final piece of the puzzle is a leap of faith. It makes for an interesting bunch of stories, which I will review...now!

Art by Luis Carlos Barragán

“The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski (5083 words)

No Spoilers: Mads in a veilonaut, one who travels through the Discontinuity, a rip in spacetime that can take people to...well, that’s relatively unknown. It can take people to different and distant places in the galaxy, or to other galaxies, or to other universes. It’s hard to tell, and made harder by the fact that the Discontinuity is unpredictable, never showing the same place twice and shifting with time. Mads has just lost a woman she had been intimate with to the unknown, and with that in the back of her mind she’s getting ready to make a new jump with two associates. The piece is tense and centers memory and distance. Not just the distance the Discontinuity stretches, though, but also the distance people keep from it, trying to avoid the dangers it represents but also, maybe, missing out on what’s really there—what’s really possible. It’s a story about being lost and, maybe, depending on how you look at it, being found.
Keywords: Space, Transportation, Portals, Queer MC, Stranded
Review: This story captures such a yearning feel to it, tempered by the realities of scientific method, especially when it comes to space and exploration. Because the reality of having something like a rip in spacetime is that everything is uncertain and death looms large in the agoraphobic moments of passing through such a portal. For Mads, it’s an experience that is full of hope and terror, because for all she wants to go, to see, to discover, she also is trapped by the fear of not coming back, the fear that she’ll end up like so many others, friends and lovers who have gone in and not come out, or come out in pieces. And that’s where I see the story laying the boundaries of carefully measured scientific research. The instruments don’t work and the math just doesn’t add up. The rip might as well be magic for all the people know about it, but instead of embracing that trying to really get into what makes it work, what could make it work, everyone wants to play is safe. Except that there is no safe, and when Mads’ mission goes wrong she realizes she has nothing to lose and finally embraces the mystery and the potential of the situation, giving herself to the hope and letting fully go of the terror. Where that leads her is ultimately left up to the discretion of the reader, but for me it implies that once free of that fear, she’s finally able to reach for the world she knows exists, even if she never could have proven it. It’s to me an argument for faith where science fails—not religious faith, exactly, but rather a leap of faith in humanity, that maybe we can find out way even in the vastness of space. A great read!

“The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia (4395 words)

No Spoilers: Sister Nadine is the Anchorite of St. Nicholas, a position within the community that seems at first religious. She offers wisdom and oversees things in the church, trapped there by her duties. One day, though, she notices a young girl, and has something of a shift. Though she knows she should report this girl, like all interesting individuals, she finds herself holding back for the first time. What that ends up revealing, though, reaches far beyond the walls of the church, far beyond St. Nicholas. Strange and surreal at times, the story almost seems like it will be fantasy before resolving into something decidedly more science fictional. The true nature of Nadine is the piece’s central mystery, but it’s not one that the reader needs to piece together. Instead, it’s waiting for the revelation of what’s going on that the reader must endure—for clarity to emerge as the horrors and hope of the situation become clear.
Keywords: Religion, Code, Harvest, War, Resistance
Review: I enjoy that the story has a science to it that almost looks like magic because of what it is and what it’s trying to do. St. Nicholas is a sort of testing ground, and Nadine’s role of Anchorite is to find those interesting things that emerge so that a larger war machine can use them to further some unknown and perhaps unknowable conflict. The piece is mired in a battle that is distant and unending, which for me speaks to the trappings of the story, to organized religion which does often operate a bit like this, seeking to either silence or utilize those deviant elements inside a community in order to maintain its power—in order to keep its hold on the population. The mandates from on high say this is for everyone’s benefit, to win the great war of good against evil, and yet the conflict is nebulous, distant, and there’s the feeling I get that the terms of victory or defeat are unknown. People fight because it’s what they know and because it allows them to continue to hold onto power. And yet Nadine wants to do good, actually wants to help people, and it’s from that which the hope and joy of the story flow. Because she’s able to subvert her role, to resist letting the church take people away to be used up by war. And in the end she’s able to make connections that are able to break the chains that bind her to the church, to her prison. It’s a story about freedom and care, and escaping the rigid grinding wheel of religion and war to find the divinity of people, and food and love. A wonderful story!

“Kingfisher” by Robert Reed (11943 words)

No Spoilers: Another story about longing and distance, this story is much more specifically about pursuit. About a chase. About a man named Kingfisher who loved and was separated from a woman trying to find her on a strange planet-sized ship that’s engaged in a pursuit of its own. Across the nearly endless ice her moves, following his fancies and any rumors of her, occasionally resting but always pulled back into the chase. And then he gets word that she might be in a great city. And he must face the prospect of his hundred-million-year-long quest coming to an end. The piece is strange and a bit disjointed, owing to the nature of Kingfisher and his quest and the brain injury that originally separated him from his love. He’s been twisted by the immense time that he’s been travelling, his purpose singular and yet also not even what he thinks it is. The piece is haunted, defined by an absence, and yet aimed always forward.
Keywords: Chase, Time, Space, Travel, Memory
Review: I feel like what this story engages with most is the idea of desire. Of pursuit. There’s that whole idea of absence making the heart grow fonder, and maybe that would be accurate here but I feel much more that that’s pushing him forward isn’t love by the need for answers. It’s unfinished business nipping at his heels mixed with a brain injury that seems to make it harder for him to form new memories, and has created out of the old memories something he can’t be sure of. It’s opened up a mystery of sorts, and because of that mystery about himself, about his life before, he can’t settle. He feels like he needs to know and find closure with that life, and there’s only the one person who can give it to him. And yet in order to make a story of it, he’s wrapped the reason in love, in lover desperate to find his paramour. And I like how the story complicates that with the story of the ship he’s on, the enormous vessel whose purpose has been lost over time. That’s travelling just to travel, because stopping would mean having to admit that it’s forgotten why it’s traveling. So a myth crops up about the reason. One centered on desire, one where reaching this end will mean something. And I love how that begins to be challenged by the story, by the uncertainty Kingfisher feels the nearer he gets to the end. How he almost can’t decide if he loves or hates this woman from long ago, that he’s chased for so long. Because the reality of it can’t match what his mind has made out of this confrontation. And I like that slowly his life begins to be more about the moments of rest. Not the chase but the times when he can make new memories, even if they don’t come as vivid as those from before his accident. There’s the sense I get that the story is circling around the idea that he can’t imagine that there would be something he’d give up the chase for, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something. And that it can happen at any moment, and that it takes really thinking about his reasons, and what he hopes to get out of the chase. Because an endless chase can be rewarding, can bring purpose, but puts aside really doing anything in the mean time. It puts everything off for later, and there is a great deal of joy and compassion and pleasure and meaning that can be found in the here and now. So yeah, a lovely and strange and beautiful read!

“The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson (15501 words)

No Spoilers: Ada is a young orphan sent to live with her aunt on the eve of a wastoure summer, a time when ravaging bands of carnivorous creatures roam the countryside eating everything in their past. Through accident and cleverness, Ada survives the first horrific attack with Blanche, a talking chicken of astounding wisdom. From there, though, the piece follows the pair as they seek out somewhere to weather the storm of wastoures and the constant fear and threat of death. It’s not exactly an easy thing to find. The piece also takes something of a meta turn, the author (or a character of the author) inserting themself in to make comments mostly about the secondary and tertiary characters in the story. Reminding the reader of the mortal cost of this relatively juvenile-feeling adventure fantasy featuring Ada and her talking chicken. Because though this is fantasy, there are choices being made by the author, and other choices being made by the reader, about what happens to this world and to these people, which questions and challenges what exactly a happy ending is.
Keywords: Loss, Hunger, Safety, Chickens, Orphans, Travel
Review: This is a story that for me works on many levels. On the one and probably the shallowest, it’s the story of a girl and a chicken, and it’s fun and charming and full of tragedy. It’s a sort of fairy tale in that, where Ada and Blanche are made to suffer in order to show just how worthy they are of a happy ending. To build up the inevitable triumph of good over bad, of person and helpful chicken over the violent and expansive might of the wastoures. At this level the story is fairly fun, because even while Ada and Blanche wade through people bereft by what’s happened, at turns resilient or despairing or dead, they still have each other and they never give up until they have carried the day and beaten back the main threat to their lives. Digging deeper, though, and the story seems to me to ask the reader to really complicate that ending. To look at who is dying for this fun. To interrogate the reader’s desires to see Ada and Blanche survive but care less about the runners, about the townsfolk, about the other plucky souls trying to survive. Many of them don’t, and yet we consider the overall ending happy as long as Ada and Blanche make is, as long as they win. There’s a question here about what it would take for the ending to be sad. For, given everything, so much about this story _is_ sad. Though Ada and Blanche survive, it’s hardly a happy ending because what happens next is bleak. And even if it weren’t, there’s so many people who met bad ends inside the story. And if they hadn’t, the the westoures themselves, who seem to be guilty of only being not human, don’t exactly get to have a happy ending. In the end, what I feel the story does is demand that we account our happy ending, to examine who gets it and if that happy ending comes at the expense of other people. It’s a difficult and rather grim piece, with that considered, but it is an excellent exercise in layering a narrative, and doing something fresh with an old mode of storytelling. A fantastic read!

“The Loneliest Ward” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu (2783 words)

No Spoilers: Qina and Auntie Han are nurses in a hospital overloaded with patients basically catatonic because of their dependence on social media. Because of their need for praise, and reassurance. They are hooked up to machines that feed their brains the stimuli they require, and remain. And remain. Qine and Auntie Han, though, approach their roles as caregivers very differently. For Qina, her job is mostly meaningless, monitoring people that never change, and disdain laces her opinions about the kinds of people who end up in hospitals. Auntie Han, though, is both more compassionate and more concerned, hoping to figure out a solution to this problem before it spreads too far.
Keywords: Social Media, Hospitals, Nursing, Breakups, Anxiety
Review: For me, a lot of this story seems to be about the dangers of social media. The ways that people can become obsessed with it, and let it take over a lot of their lives. More insidiously, the way that people can use social media to insulate themselves from the world, curating existence so that they don’t have to deal with things they don’t agree with. It leads them to become vulnerable to people or movements that want them numb an disengaged from the world. It does feel a bit “kids these days” to me in some ways, at least because I feel that Auntie Han maybe gets off a little light. She’s shown as more compassionate, but at the same time he’s lost in a world of monographs that probably aren’t going to reach the people they need to in order to make a dent in the problem. Social media here is something of a vector for a disease of axiety, and I find that view to be rather limited. It can often seem like social media is more trouble than it’s worth, but the same can be said of most social structures. The question does become who is comfortable and who isn’t...who is shunned and who is affirmed...who can balance social and personal and who cannot. And yet the story does raise some interesting questions about anxiety and social media, and what people really want from having instant and constant access to people, feeds, events, etc. It’s perhaps a story I have some reservations about, but it’s definitely worth checking out and making your own mind up about.


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