|Art by Helen Ilnytska|
A single novelette and four short stories make for a nicely balanced month at Clarkesworld, where the theme as I can find it is ghosts and hauntings. In very different ways, the characters of these stories are being haunted. By guilt and by the past. By their mistakes and by the memories they leave behind. These are stories of people being confronted with the ways their paths differ from how they hoped. Disaster looms. And yet most of them are able to snatch back from the edge of the abyss something to help them move forward and not fall in. It’s an interesting bunch of stories, so let’s get to the reviews!
“Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson (7470 words)
No Spoilers: Etta made some alcohol related bad decisions at a part involving stealing her sister’s shoes and then leaving them behind when she had to flee in the wake of a vomit-filled disaster. Now sober and fully aware how her sister will make her life hell because of the shoes, Etta seeks otu a thief, Thierry, with an octopus, Pico, who might be able to set things right. The piece is a comedic heist-gone-wrong as Thierry tries to steer Pico into the house where Etta left her shoes and finds the situation isn’t quite as simple as anticipated. It’s fun and fast and does a good job of being entertaining while asking some light questions about the morality of controlling an intelligent animal through augmentations to its body and brain. The personality of the characters really come through—even stubborn, resilient Pico—and make for an easy read.
Keywords: Parties, Shoes, Octopuses, Theft, Puppetry, Rebellion
Review: Okay so I’m a sucker for stories with animals in them, and this that features an octopus that’s supposed to be mostly a tool for theft is an interesting one. Because it does question this belief that animals wouldn’t be aware that they’re being controlled. Because the logic is always there that animals don’t experience the world as humans do, aren’t as “intelligent” as humans are, and so anything that we do to them really isn’t immoral. Like messing with their brains so we can turn an octopus into a tool to break into houses to rob them. I like how the story builds up Pico’s personality, implying that they know a bit more than Thierry wants to believe. And showing how, when given the chance, they can make very human-seeming decisions. It’s a light read for all of that, focused on energy and voice and fun, and I think it does all of those things quite well. It might go for the easy laughs at time (vomit, weird pron, and vengeful cephalopods), but given the state of everything right now a light read is in no ways a bad thing. The characters are all interesting and Etta’s shift from bystander trying to erase previous crimes with new ones to person more willing to accept and embrace her agency is a satisfying arc and it’s all just a fun ride. A wonderful way to kick off the issue!
“What the South Wind Whispers” by H. Pueyo (4713 words)
No Spoilers: Elías works at a shield station, part of a large network of stations that protect the planet from a comet storm that has been going on for quite some time. He’s been solely in charge of the isolated station for quite some time, something that he’s not really bothered by, though he’s gotten a bit lonely. Because of his autism, though, and dysphoria, he’s wary of being around people, of opening himself up to that kind of risk. It’s only when an applicant to his station meets his specifications that he agrees to a partner on the shield, and must prepare for the changes that might bring. After so long of relying only on Heloise, the station’s AI, it’s a big risk, but one he wants to take. And it’s a careful and powerful story about connections and about abuse. About isolation and trying to trust in a world where Elías has really never had a reason to trust people. Where he’s always been abandoned and betrayed.
Keywords: Comets, Shields, Isolation, AI, Trans MC, Autistic MC
Review: This story looks at isolation in a very interesting way. For me, at least, the piece is really about trust, and learning to trust as an autistic and transgender person. Where trust has always been a fraught thing because it’s so hard for Elías to even trust himself. Because he fears that how other people misgender and perceive him is all his fault. How he wants to be able to go out and do things and yet it is too painful to go out where people could hurt him. And so he relies on Heloise, something that she ends up enjoying. And yeah, wow, the relationship with Heloise is complicated and wrenching. Because in some ways she likes that he relies on her. Likes that he can’t do too much on his own. He’s incredibly good at his job, but his entire emotional support comes from Heloise, who more and more seems to want to maintain his dependence on her. At first it seems like she’s behind him pushing his boundaries forward. She helps him bring in Lola, another autistic worker, in an attempt to cut through the isolation. And yet as the story moves, Heloise becomes more and more possessive, gaslighting Elías in order to keep him isolated and dependent on her, poisoning him against Lola and everyone else. It’s terrifying to watch and it leads to some very dark places and I like that the story goes there, revealing the horror of not knowing who to trust and being betrayed so often. It’s just a wrenching and intimate story about Elías as he tries to navigate interacting with people, taking risks that might for once not lead to further pain. A wonderful and heartfelt read!
“Ghost Island” by E.E. King (3180 words)
No Spoilers: Riku is a soldier in the City, where utility and survival are the largest concerns. Everyone must work to ensure that the City persists in a world where disaster has rendered the planet unlivable outside of the sealed domes of the City. And duty demands that Riku report to Yūtrei Island, a place that rumor says is haunted. Haunted because soldiers who go there might lose themselves. Lose their memories. Be convinced that they are someone else, with a different family or lover. The piece is strange, a mystery of what happens to Riku and the people around him. And a longing away from the utilitarian reality of the day and toward a nostalgic and romanticized past where there was warmth, and more traditional families, and more of an emphasis on pleasure.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Utility, Ghosts, Memories, Soldiers, Amnesia
Review: I do appreciate stories that seek to complicate viewing post-disaster futures as being designed solely around utility and survival. Because it always seems to paint the picture that it’s worth it to “sacrifice” individual freedoms for the “greater good” of human survival. When, for many, the realities that the “greater good” requires often is worse than death for many people, and so their deaths and erasures get framed as okay. And here we see the toll even on the people for whom the City doesn’t seem a nightmare. Riku isn’t dissatisfied with the system. He’s not a rebel. He accepts things as they are and just seems to want the small comforts and pleasures he can find. And because of that, he seems almost more susceptible to the kind of nostalgia that haunts the island he is assigned to. A nostalgia for the times when things were easier, and there was more beauty and more ease and more all sorts of things. It shows just how seductive that is, that strong desire for that time. And if anything I feel it’s a cautionary tale, to warn people that if trends continue, all we’ll have left of this time of relative luxury (even if it’s not very luxurious for most people) will be the images and the ghosts of memories forever adrift. And it’s an interesting exploration of that, though perhaps for my tastes I would have liked to see more of a departure from the standard (read rather straight) relationship structure given the removal of one of the largest reasons it’s so promoted (reproduction). But otherwise it’s a fascinating world that’s revealed, with a moody and yearning feeling that fits very well with the idea of being haunted, though in a rather unusual way. A fine read!
“The Gift of Angels: an introduction” by Nina Allan (14573 words)
No Spoilers: Vincent is a writer of science fiction books taking a residency in Paris in part to research his next project, though it’s one her’s rather secretive about—about his mother, who was part of a mission to Mars that was lost. The piece is told part in story but mostly in memoir, Vincent going over the events of not only his own life, but his parents’ lives as well, all cycling through time to where Vincent is looking back on it all, caught in this moment of age and memory, nostalgia and yearning, pain and hope. The piece slowly and with the reliability of memory tempered by research. This is not the organic recollections of someone but rather framed as a writer curating a story of beginning to work on this project, approaching his feelings about his mother and how she was lost and all that she left behind. It’s a wonderful bit of fictional introspection speckled with facts of this future world and seasoned with Vincent’s experiences in Paris as he stands poised on the edge of this plunge into his past and how it mixes with film and fiction.
Keywords: Space, Family, Films, Writing, Queer MC, Memories
Review: This is a lovely story about time and about memory, about a man who in some ways didn’t stop being the young boy waiting for his mother to return. Who grew up with this absence in his life, even as he didn’t want for love or affection. It was more that there was something he knew was missing, and it’s taken him until now, when his parents are both gone and he’s gained some perspective, for him to really dig into his past and his family and try to make sense of it all. Not clinically or coldly, but with a kind of spirit of exploration mixed with an artistic sensibility, knowing that for him the journey was always inward. Not out to Mars but into his own psyche where he’s been hurt and often alone, though not as often lonely. It’s a very touching and complex read, too, bringing in elements of French film and the legacy that has built in looking at time travel and messaging. Seeing himself in some ways as this balance between his father and mother, influenced by both and yet wholly original as well. Making many of the same connections and yet striking out on his own path. I mean I appreciate how so many of the events in the story, the meetings especially, seem to echo with the power of his mother meeting his father. That chance encounter that’s taken on so much complex weight because it wholly defined his father, marked him indelibly, and came to really define Vincent’s life as well. And it says so much that the one meeting should do that, have such a profound impact. And for me it reveals a sort of yearning and hesitation in Vincent, that he’s equally compelled by the power of that, literately as well as literally, but frightened of it as well. That he could see himself falling under that spell but knows it doesn’t suit him. And gah there’s just so much going on here, so many layers to unpack. The language is at the same time confessional and inquisitive, as if Vincent is both shaping where the story is going and has no idea where it will lead, as if he’s just along for the ride, on his own kind of rocket ship, and it’s deep and it’s a bit heartbreaking at times and it’s just good. So yeah, definitely make some time for this one, as it’s a fantastic read!
“The Love Letters” by Peng Simeng, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu (1937 words)
No Spoilers: This story is framed as a look at a lonely and unremarkable asteroid, interesting only because (through an easy manual error), a great deal of communication capsules have congregated. Four of which, from Hushan to their beloved back on Earth, Persephone, tumble through the winds of the asteroid, waiting, waiting. The piece is a nested narrative, that of Hushan coming one level beneath that of the capsules themselves on the planet, all of it building around the longing and tragedy of what has happened, the errors that have been exposed in Hushan’s thinking, and the price they pay for their mistakes. It’s a story leaning on older conventions and language, coming to the reader as letters in a bottle on a roving sea, and it builds a lonely, lost atmosphere.
Keywords: Space, Exploration, Minerals, Androids, Mail, Love Letters
Review: There’s a folly that runs throughout this story for me, a sort of deep wincing tragedy that would be sadder but for the fact that it seems largely self-inflicted. And really what it is seems to be a story of hubris and destruction, where Hushan goes out into the unknown in order to bring home wealth. Knowing that they don’t even like the people who have made that work. But desperate or at the very least eager to try their hand at it. To bring back something grand to share with the intended recipient of these capsules. Only just as they are wrong about the address they are sending to (ending up on an asteroid instead of Earth), so too are they wrong about the wealth. Though it always seems so close, their actions lead them and their crew into escalating dangers in hopes that it will lead to an escalated payoff. It...doesn’t. And when it comes out that Hushan is actually an android, I get the feeling that it’s supposed to explain a bit of their arrogance, which might be a way of them dealing with the pressures to be perfect. To be right. There does seem to be some prejudice in the story against androids, though Hushan doesn’t face much of it so I’m not entirely sure. But I like the way that it paints their character. As so steeped in the romantic traditions of humans that they sound like an old maritime captain, though it also leads them into the old traps. And perhaps that’s what I like about the story, that it’s not really about the fault of Hushan, but rather the cycles that repeat throughout time, as long as there is the promise of wealth somewhere out there beyodn the horizon. As long as people can feel like it’s just coming into reach. It’s a gripping narrative, elegant and lonely but quite good. A great way to close out the issue!