Monday, October 22, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #145

The October issue of Clarkesworld Magazine is all about survival. Or, I should say, about finding out what’s more important than survival. These stories take settings that are, well, grim. Where war and other disasters have created a situation where just holding onto life is difficult. Where for many it would seem obvious that it’s time to tighten one’s belt and get down to the serious business of surviving. And yet the stories show that surviving isn’t enough, especially if it means sacrificing people. That, without justice and hope beyond just making it to another day, surviving might not be worth it. But that, with an eye toward progress, and hope for something better (not just the prevention of something worse), people and peoples can begin to heal the damage that’s been caused and maybe reach a place where they can heal and find a better way to live. To the reviews!

Art by Pat Presley


“The Miracle Lambs of Minane” by Finbarr O’Reilly (7173 words)

No Spoilers: Following a man looking for a job in a world that has come out of a terrible famine, the main character and narrator of this story ends up on a farm where his boss, Moll, grows all number of spices and vegetables to give people a taste of flavor in a time that is very much focused on survival and procreation. More, some of her plants might have some other uses that definitely do not fit with the religious or legal realities of this time or place. Through it all, the main character makes for a mostly clueless protagonist. Mostly he just wants to be, to get by, to work and to love and to pretend that things are normal. As he’s drawn more into Moll’s world, though, he comes to realize pretty brutally that it’s not normal, and that he can’t just be a passive observer. It’s a fascinating if grim world that the story creates, where there has been a decline and people have to decide what’s important and how to move forward.
Keywords: Famine, Parties, Plants, Goats, CW- Pregnancy/Abortion, Police
Review: Okay so I rather like stories that are set post-disaster that focus on the ways that life has to be about more than just survival. That focusing on survival means by and large the suppression of rights, the violation of consent, and the authoritarianism of governments. It’s very easy for those visions to slide into dystopic visions, and I love that while this story plays with that a bit, I don’t feel it really embraces it. Because it sees the value and vision of Moll and those like her, who don’t want to just go back. Who don’t want to go back to a system that obviously didn’t work. And who can see that in order to get to that mythic “back then” a lot of people (namely women and marginalized people) are going to suffer. And all it will do is recreate the same bullshit, the same corruption, the same misogyny. And so I like that here the narrator is moving through this world not really getting it. He probably believes in some ways that things are supposed to go back to how they were. That people are supposed to want that, even as he’s rather ambivalent. And as time goes on I think that ambivalence shifts into something else. Where he, too, is made to see the ugliness of the efforts to go back. What it means on a personal level. And I like where that leads him, and where it leads the setting. Where Moll becomes a sort of folk hero for what she does, for what she fights for. It’s a wonderful story that could easily have been much, much darker and I’m so glad it didn’t go that direction!

“Sparrow” by Yilin Wang (2359 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, in this story you are a drifter, a person who has come to Chongqing in hopes of finding permanent work and fell into window cleaning only to find yourself laid off because the field is becoming more and more automated. The story unfolds on your last day of work, as you try one last time to save your job, and as you’re followed around by a photographer to capture you at your job. It’s a story that’s very much about longing and hope in the face of difficulty. Because for so many people that’s all they have. Because the system doesn’t work for them. Because they are deemed without value. It’s difficult and wrenching, exposing how for a great many their stories aren’t like those in books, in legends. Their lives are more real, and more tragic, but no less human or valuable.
Keywords: Window Cleaning, Employment, Lay Offs, Automation, Cities, Drifting
Review: This story really speaks to the sort of situation that people can run into who find themselves undervalued. Who run into the trend in politics to just not value human life. They are people who can’t even get work doing dangerous and poorly compensated work because it can be done easier and without the risk of accidents by machines. And note, that risk of accidents has nothing to do with actually valuing humans. Instead, it’s about taking away liability. And that really does strike how how little companies really care about people in this story and in the world we live in, because it’s speaks a truth that sees so many people hoping to get work so that they can just get by. To live. To eat. To not crumble to dust. And the main character wants to hope. Wants there to be a way for her to get out of this cycle, to claw her way out of drifting. At the same time, she sees the value and beauty in drifting. How it speaks to the stories that we tell, of the poor becoming heroes, becoming rich. Of justice, which seems more and more like a legend, paper thin and shredded. It’s just such a draining read, and poignantly so, as her story is revealed in layers, all her hopes and all her work not even able to stop her fall. She descends, and descends, and at some point she might get lost to the shadows in the depths, and there’s a sense that no one will really care or mark that loss. Which is depressing as fuck and makes for a very compelling read well worth checking out!

“When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller (13204 words)

No Spoilers: Mink is the scout of her tribe, a group of I think reptilian beings who survive the ruined wastes of a world pock marked with remnants of a fallen civilization. Mink’s tribe is superstitious and high utilitarian, leaving being wounded members, avoiding places that are touched by ghosts. After one rather bad encounter, though, they’ve come to a place that seems safe. Only there’s a very strange ghost in residence. Despite that, though, Mink finds she doesn’t want to flee and abandon to die. Indeed, she finds that she’s drawn to the strange ghost and his talk of stars and a history she has never known. Moving and full of wonder, the piece focuses on the way that playing for survival alone is a losing game, and what might be an alternative on a world that seems so unclear and unholy.
Keywords: Salvage, Travel, Superstition, AI, Post-Disaster, Songs, Stars
Review: I love the world that this story builds, of strange and dangerous wastes rusting over the remnants of what seem to be human civilization. And though humans aren’t around any more, some few of their electronics are, AI who most of the time aren’t advanced enough to cause much of an issue. Here, however, Mink stumbles on a very powerful AI, one that seems to have become sentient. And one who is very focuses on space, and helping people reach for the stars. It seems an almost ridiculous conceit give the state of the world, given everything else going on, but I love the wonder and magic and hope that becomes caught up with the idea of space. That for the tribe it could be an escape. To a world that didn’t go through such a loss. And if they put down their superstition, their fear, their focus only on surviving, they can do more than survive. They can find a way to thrive and to build something that will help them to find freedom and sanctuary. At least, that’s the hope that this AI, who Mink names Orion, seems to hint at. Through I also like that in practical terms the story is also about reclaiming knowledge, and setting aside prejudice in order to make something. In order to try and escape the cyclical violence that is a constant threat to the tribe. It’s a story that for me is about progress, and striving for progress. Not by merely returning to a previous state of technology and advancement, but by actually embracing a dream and working toward it through reclamation and salvage, through knowledge and ingenuity, bringing their own skills and prowess to try and build something that the past never managed. The action is intense, the relationship between Mink and Orion is great, and the world building is inspired. A great read!

“The Facecrafter” by Anna Wu, translated by Emily Jin (8972 words)

No Spoilers: Ling Xi is the lone art custodian in an underground city full of people who would much rather spend their time in virtual reality than looking at art. In a world where humanity has fled underground to survive the nuclear fallout from a great war, things aren’t so great—in fact, the cities themselves are falling apart, a depressing reality that just spurs people to invest more and more to their virtual lives. So no one else really cares when the entirety of the art collection goes missing. For Ling Xi, however, it’s the beginning of a mystery that will span dimensions and could save humanity or condemn it to complete destruction. It’s a strange piece, building around the idea of gods and language and cooperation and money. It moves quickly, shifting from the real world to the virtual world with fluid ease, and at its core is the question of what good art is in a world dominated by hurt and loss and damage.
Keywords: Dimensions, Art, Nuclear Radiation, Post-Disaster, Rejuvenation, Dance, Virtual Reality
Review: I like how this story draws a line between art and science and healing. And how it walks the line between condemning people for their obsession with the virtual world with the knowledge that in times of great stress, people reach for beauty as a balm for despair. Because this is a world where the hits don’t seem to stop coming. First with war and everything that did, and then with the increased recovery time, so that the shelters that humanity was counting on lasting until the world was safe again...aren’t going to make it. And in the face of that everyone sort of shuts down. And I like the mystery elements of the story as well, the way that Ling Xi is about the only person to care because she cares about art, because she wants to make sure that it survives into the future. What she finds as she looks into what happened, though, points at some strange and perhaps divine intervention, and that’s where the story gets...a bit...weird. And yet I still like how the story wraps all of it together, showing how for this world to recover, for these humans to survive and reach the surface again, they need to learn from art, and need to learn how to reach out to each other despite the grimness of the world. It’s about the power of art to inspire and to provoke people to engage with the world differently, to change their perspective so that they can find novel solutions to very difficult problems. And though I feel the story has some uneven narrative distance, I think the overall effect is strong and it’s a fun and interesting read!

“Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (7923 words)

No Spoilers: Joe is a terrible soldier. Over his rather underwhelming career the main thing that sets him apart is that he’s up to thirty three percent artificial, mostly made up of replacement body parts that have smart chips and converse amongst themselves, completely unknown to Joe. The only one of them that Joe interacts with direction is CC, which is part of his head, but each new part that he gets comes with its own personality, from a chronically complaining spleen to a dour heart to a long suffering ear. And the piece, despite introducing a rather gritty setting where middle America is a battlefront between unknown sides fighting a brutal war, is also hilarious. And the way that tone plays off the darker elements of the story is at times almost jarring, but ultimately most endearing, showing how the parts of Joe are trying to save him, mostly from himself but also from the violence swirling around him. It’s a fun, cute, ridiculous, strangely emotionally resonating story about self destruction and sacrifice and survival.
Keywords: Prosthetics, AI, Bodies, War, Food, Injury, CW- Suicide, CW- War/Gun Violence
Review: Okay so the premise of a bunch of sentient AI body parts is just rather delightful. Not so delightful is that they come packaged in a man who is a walking bundle of needing a therapist because of unresolved parent issues (a soldier father whose artificial kidney exploded and killed him, an abusive mother who doesn’t really care about him). Throw in a war in Ohio and this story straddles the dark and the funny in some complex and rather nuanced ways. For me, it does so while really twisting one of the more classic ideas about AI and robots—that they are designed to serve humans. It’s something that’s normally examined in order to show AI twisting that and trying to kill humans by way of saying that it’s best for them, or best of the AI’s given task (keeping things tidy, for instance). Here, however, the body parts (issued by the military in order to keep Joe fighting) are coming to the conclusion that what’s best for Joe (and by extension all of them) is for him to get out of the battlefield. Because not only is her a rather terrible soldier, he’s also a bit self destructive, depressed, and not wanting to have to deal with the stress, shame, and guilt of being a soldier. Which put his body parts in a rather awkward situation. Seriously, though, watching them try to come up with ways of getting Joe out of combat is amazing, especially because it gets at trauma and sacrifice and wraps them in this level of comedy that I feel still shows the weight of them. I mean, this isn’t a particularly happy story, revealing a country at war and a situation where soldiers are hurled into the meat grinder. But I also feel that it’s a story about a minority doing what it can to save the whole. Which sometimes doesn’t come with a best case scenario. That very often comes with limitations, and rules, and a lean toward destruction. But where a few bent rules and an eye toward life and healing and an end to the killing might lead to something better. And really it’s a very complex piece that pokes fun at war without, I feel, making light of it. Which is quite the accomplishment and makes for a rather hilarious and heartfelt read!


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