Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #144

Clarkesworld keeps things a little light this month, maybe as a slight reprieve as convention season winds down, with two short stories and two novelettes. For me, the stories have a lot to with movement, with generations, and with harm. They find characters on the run because of the violence they were brought up to value, and having to decide to reject it or revel in its flavors. The pieces explore family and connections and hope, and the impulse to reach for the stars, be they celestial bodies or human celebrities. It’s a rather complex, moving, and sometimes hilarious issue, and I’ll get right to the reviews!

Art by Arthur Haas

“A Study in Oils” by Kelly Robson (12009 words)

No Spoilers: Zhang Lei is a former hockey player from Luna, on the run after killing a fellow player and being fitted with a Disable Button, which allows anyone who cares to to knock him out and physically assault him. He’s a hardened person, used to the rough and often violent moon, which revels in a sort of open refusal of the Earth and all it stands for. Like a big city where the people walk around with huge chips on their shoulder and sneer at the backwards hillbillies of rural areas, Luna is full of people who take pride in their toughness but aren’t often called to really feel the full force of what it means to live always ready to fight to kill. On Earth, Zhang Lei is sent to a remote village where the people there live much more “traditional” lives. It’s supposed to hide him from the Lunar brawlers looking to punish him for what he’s done before he can appeal his case and maybe be freed from the Disable Button. It’s a startling setting the story paints, full of the same old divides. The piece is light on action, much more concerned with showing how Zhang Lei approaches what he’s done, and how the environment he was brought up in has informed his actions.
Keywords: Hockey, The Moon, China, Killing, Punishment, Paintings
Review: For me, I like how the story complicates the action of Zhang Lei killing someone else. It sets him into this brutal world of Lunar Hockey, in a situation where he is constantly under assault to prove his toughness, his masculinity. Surrounded by that toxicity, I feel the story asks what his real culpability is. He trains for the moment that comes, for the moment when he kills someone. He is exactly what he’s been encouraged to be, what he’s been trained to be. And yet that action haunts him. The story, to me, shows him embracing the parts of himself he always denied because he was pushed into hockey. Where he can be an artist instead of an athlete. And, though his art, he’s able to approach what he’s done in a complex way, getting at the guilt that he’s not exactly been expressing because so much of his attention has been on his punishment. Which, for me, makes the argument that when justice is made about physically punishing someone for a crime, it actively avoids trying to foster regret or healing. Instead, the focus is on the visceral satisfaction the mob takes in hurting the “guilty.” Which only further entrenches the violence. For me, more than anything, the story asks what justice in this instance should look like. Now, I kind of wish there was more about Dorgon, about the life that was ended here, which was probably just as conflicted and rich as Zhang Lei’s. But I like that the focus here is on regret and on Zhang Lei recognizing that despite being freed of his Disable Button, what he’s done is still going to haunt him, and he’ll need to find ways to live with that, and live because of that. And it’s a rather fun and picturesque read to boot, and definitely a story to spend some time with!

“Waves of Influence” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (5730 words)

No Spoilers: Chenghui has traveled to the big city to become the apprentice of the social queen Meixiu, though she accomplishes it more through hacking and confidence than through actually winning the contest call. She’s on a mission, though, to bring her terminally ill sister a bit of joy. By becoming her idol. By becoming Meixiu. Only, as her own popularity grows out of Meixiu’s shadow, her plans begin to change. And where that leaves her relationship with a sister is...well, far away from where it started. The piece treats with the nature of social media success and industry in general, and it’s strange and compelling what Chenghui is willing to do to at first do something for her sister and how that changes, slowly and steadily, into doing something for herself.
Keywords: Sisters, Social Media, Hacking, Memories, CW- Terminal Illnesses
Review: I love how this story sets Chenghui into a situation where she’s going out to become an idol, a celebrity, for this very noble reason. But that, in order to be an idol, she has to adopt the habits of one. And something in the beginning of the story really stands out to me, that people have two main accounts. Their true account, which is public, and their friend account, which is only for their closest people. And I love that the true account is the public facing one, the one that people would expect you to be more fake in. And for me that gets to the core of the story, the idea that if you’re pretending to be something, if that’s taking up so much of your time, then in effect that is your true self. That is the part of you that is getting more life, more air. And so regardless of Chenghui’s intentions, by thinking that she could only pretend to be an idol for her sister, she doomed that relationship. Because all the values of being an idol, that originally judged her as unworthy, got absorbed. She was successful in her transformation, and doesn’t want to face it. What she once considered her true self is suffocating behind the mask, so much so that the mask becomes her face, and what’s below might as well not exist. It’s a rather terrifying story in that way, in showing how she changes and how her intentions shift. And it shows the very complex nature of fame and power, that to be very good in those arenas, you can’t be a good person. And it’s a wrenching and heartbreaking story and a great read!

“Dandelion” by Elly Bangs (5977 words)

No Spoilers: Three generations of unnamed women anchor this story of generational change, scientific knowledge, and hope. The narrator, the youngest, speaks through the story to her grandmother, a scientist who overcame the limits on women of the time to be the head of her field and to oversee the research and study around a craft found in the antarctic desert with clear extraterrestrial origins. And the piece explores the hurts and the intellects of both the narrator’s grandmother and mother, who ended up deeply divided because of the theories they had about the ship. The grandmother, certain that it was a prophet of great technological leaps. The mother, certain that it revealed that the limits of space travel were already essentially realized. And it takes the narrator to harmonize their theories, just as she had to go between the women in person, a mediator and link in a chain that might not genetically continue in the form of children, but which is linked to something larger and more enduring still.
Keywords: Space Travel, Generations, Family, Queer MC, Science!, Aliens
Review: I really like how this story captures the sense of continuity and continuation in different ways. The first is through family, through generations of people working on the same project but in different ways. The grandmother passing along her scientific curiosity but that curiosity taking very different forms, shaped in part by the rest of the world as well. The grandmother with the optimism of the technological boom, thinking that there are no limits on discovery. The mother with her fear, knowing the horror of what human technology creates, recognizing that there might not be a continual growth. And the narrator, who takes both of these things and decides that just because the tech might not be there to make space travel easy doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be attempted. That, in fact, it might be even more important. Just as the narrator is the bridge between grandmother and mother, she becomes a bridge to the future as well, to the generations that will come after. Perhaps not so much in the micro sense, because she’s not having children. But in the macro level, where humanity was seeded by something distant, and so humanity joins that chain, seeding more, doing more, hoping that even if humanity as we know it can’t escape the planet, can’t grow into an interstellar community of faster-than-light travel, it can at least be part of a sort of interstellar family, every alive and related and connected in ways that might not be direct communication, but that still is meaningful and inspiring. And it’s a rather beautiful and hopeful story, for all that it’s more realistic in what might be possible in terms of space travel. A wonderful read!

“The Foodie Federation’s Dinosaur Farm” by Luo Longxiang, translated by Andy Dudak (8273 words)

No Spoilers: A Lei is a worker at a food processing plant on a ship that specializes in raising dinosaurs for human consumption. Why dinosaurs? Because they are delicious! The story reveals a humanity that has taken to the stars, traveling in enormous ships, many of which are designed solely to raise livestock for humanity’s favorite pastime—eating. It truly is a future for the foodies, and the story really doesn’t slow down to worry about the logistics of how this kind of inefficient raising of meat could be feasible in space. Instead, it is the case. Accept it, okay, and enjoy the rather delightful addition of a dinosaur with human-like intelligence capable of forming tribes and aspiring to be foodies themselves, linking to humanity by their appetites and their dreams. It’s a bit of a wild ride, A Lei trapped with this strange group of ravenous creatures, and for me it features so very heavily into narratives of “civilized” dudes kidnapped and made to work for “savages.” A staple of mostly colonial texts and used to show the “nobility of the savage,” this is actually a very biting (sorry) satire, and one that’s fun to read while also bringing up some deeper themes.
Keywords: Dinosaurs, Food, Space Travel, Mech Suits, Civilization, CW- Eating Sentient Beings
Review: So on the one level, this is a rather fun story about A Lei being captured by dinosaurs and having to think quickly in order to survive and hopefully receive a promotion that he very much wants. It’s ridiculous and doesn’t really seem to care at all about the numerous ways that it’s “not realistic” or (dare I say) “breaks suspension of disbelief.” Because, well, it certainly seems to me to be making a deeper point about just that, especially aimed at the kinds of stories that find predominantly Western men kidnapped by “savage” peoples and made to work at threat to their lives. This tropes is rampant is books and stories and movies that find your Western guy in some “exotic” locale and then taken by the native population, where he has to create weapons for them, or design war strategies. And oh glob it is so sharp when it comes to that, setting up the “savage” people as actual intelligent dinosaurs that humanity is raising to be eaten. Like, ouch. And here we are treated to a story that uses so well the language of colonization, where the dinosaurs are described as able to speak human language but not very well and only because their strange biology is close to human. They are painted as viewing humans simultaneously as gods and also as food. The dinosaurs know that they have no chance of winning, and yet feel compelled to organize themselves into human-emulating structures because it’s obviously superior. All in order to become...foodies. And the story proves just how easy it is to reproduce these deeply problematic elements and structures and make them entertaining. The story is fun, as long as you don’t really stop to think about it. And once you do, you might realize that the piece is not pointed at the future, but at the past and present where these stories are still being told and venerated as classics. And there is just so much to dig into that aspect of the story. So much to see the critique and satire of it aimed at the actual horrors of colonization, the devouring of the colonized, and the patronizing bullshit that is A Lei’s attitudes toward the dinosaurs. Wow. Just really, really good, and so worth spending some time and effort on!


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