|Art by Pascal Blanché|
January brings a slew of new science fiction to Clarkesworld Magazine, which probably isn’t much of a surprise, given the venue’s track record. What is something of a surprise to me is that the publication is taking a month off from translations, as there are five originals all in original English here. But these stories have more in common than just rough genre. They are all stories of planets, of movement. That find characters travelling across great distances to find new worlds and new homes. To be confronted by the lessons of the gods or experience a moment of peace and hope. The stories are all touched by darkness but much more about near-misses, about how situations might devolve into chaos and death but...don’t. Where something brighter manages to hold on and win the day. So without further delay, let’s get to the reviews!
“Eater of Worlds” by Jamie Wahls (4852 words)
No Spoilers: Kali is part of a weapon that has been deployed, flying through space for thousands of years on the way to a planet where some human dissidents are supposed to be. After so long, though, things have changed. The war is over. It’s something that Kali is capable of understanding, but the other half of the weapon, Payload, is not. And he is determined to act on his directives, to destroy this planet and as many planets as he can to punish the dissidents. It’s a piece that does a great job with limited perspective, slowly revealing more of the world as Kali wakes up and begins to understand the situation she’s been dumped into.
Keywords: Weapons, Space, Wars, Judgement, AI, Building
Review: I love the voice and the framing of this story, the sort of ho-hum way that Kali and Payload have of looking at the world because they’ve been living on a different scale and with a different scope. They are part of a weapon, and where Payload is rather fatalistic about that, pushing forward despite everything, Kali is a bit more complex, a bit more...human. Which might be seen as a fault, because humans cna error, because humans can act from things besides logic and facts. Here, though, the story shows how important that is, how vital it can be to stepping away from war, from reaching for healing instead of more death and killing. It reminds me in some ways of the false alarms of the nuclear age, where human technicians have the final say in retaliating when a launch is detected. How it often takes a human mind rather than a machine to really judge what to do, because that machine runs off its directives, and if those directives are in error, then what? The power of choice is taken away, of changing values and judging events as they come. It makes for a perilous situation, where Payload is rigid, unyielding, and Kali is able to adapt, to understand the stories that she’s told. And it’s a rather interesting and dare-I-say charming read about war and peace and humanity, about the power of being able to choose disobedience to a specific command in order to be faithful to something deeper—to avoid the total annihilation of humanity. It’s not as if harm isn’t done (a moon and a person are certainly killed), but the piece also shows that the greater tragedy is avoided, and makes way for what might be a greater and spreading hope of healing and, what’s more, redemption. A great read!
“One’s Burden, Again” by Natalia Theodoridou (5177 words)
No Spoilers: Ionna and Niko are haulers scouring the solar system for valuable metals, almost done with another run so that they can return for some down time. For Niko it means time with his family, for Ionna time with the loss of hers, with the ghost of the father who never seemed satisfied with her efforts. A ghost who takes the form of a holosimulation that Ionna keeps with her after his passing, her only other company aside from Niko on their journeys. When they are moved mysteriously off course, though, and meet a figure out of myths, it pushes Ionna to face her grief and loss in new ways, and with different results.
Keywords: Myths, Space, Repairs, Loss, Parents, Gods
Review: I love the way this story layers its grief and its futility, taking Ionna on a journey where she can confront not her dead father, but herself. And seeing that difference is something of a huge task, because trying to please her father was a big part of her life, something she was desperate for, and something that she might never have succeeding in doing. But it’s not something that his death has relieved her of. She’s still trying to please him, still wondering if she can do that, even after it’s obvious he can not. In order to deal with it, though, she’d have to face that the time and effort she’s devoted to trying to please him has...not been wasted exactly. Because it’s given her her skills, her drive. Because she has met people and formed relationships through it, though not as many as she might have. But the specific worry about her father has been futile. Because he’s dead. Because he was never going to give her validation that she craved. And what’s she’s doing since, with the holosim of her father, is just a form of torture. Is just pushing a boulder up a hill, endlessly, either caught in ignorance that it means something or, worse, aware that it’s useless but with nothing else to do, so caught in the harmful cycle that there’s no thought of escaping it. It’s an interesting story full of myth and a weird take on space and the solar system, where there are gods and ghosts and powers that really don’t feel science fictional, but they’re integrated well, the internal logic and feel sound and compelling. And at it’s core, for me, the piece is about learning to let go, of moving past the familiar tortures, and taking a chance that there’s life worth living out there. A fascinating and wrenching read!
“Fire in the Bone” by Ray Nayler (5635 words)
No Spoilers: This story unfolds on a world made up of estates headed by men who oversee the harvesting of a special plant that works as the planet’s main export. The narrator is a member of the gentry here, younger and waiting to go off to college. And, it turns out, having an affair with a robot. It’s something definitely Not Done, and could cause him a lot of trouble, but it’s something he’s drawn to all the same. And the piece explore the factors pulling him in different directions, making him choose between his desires and the laws of the world and the universe he lives in. And it’s a piece that builds nicely to a moment where a twist, a turn, changes a lot about what the reader might have thought about what’s really going on.
Keywords: Robots, Harvests, Uprisings, History, Religion, Lies
Review: I like the way the story builds its world, setting up this galaxy that has survived a great war that has established a status quo that is perhaps the most important thing for the people who survived. That instilled in people this strong conservative urge, to try and arrest progress because it might upset the delicate balance. That works based on people accepting their roles and their places rather than following their hearts. And it plays out on the local level, as well, with the memories of robot insurrection rather fresh. And yet things are not what they seem. And I do like how the story lays its clues in leading up the twist, the moment of Ah-Hah! The narrator sounds very much like the young lord, liberal but only to a point, only so far as he gets to remain comfortable and content. When conflict arrives, and he is faced rather nakedly with the harm being done, with the ways that the world has been twisted by lies to hold in place a rather terrifying situation. And for me I think the story plays with expectation, asking how the meaning and impact of the story changes when we the readers find out the secret of the humans and the robots, and what things are “really” like. Does it make the situation worse? And if our answer is yes, then what it does it mean about our ability to accept atrocities when they’re happening to groups we’re not a part of. An effective and powerful read!
“The Ghosts of Ganymede” by Derek Künsken (7842 words)
No Spoilers: Kedija is the leader of a group of Eritrean refugees following a nuclear war that destroyed both Eritrea and Ethiopia. The survivors, all touched by radiation, have been modified to be able to survive the extreme new environment, but not given a refuge until a corporation realizes that their modifications make them suited to life on Ganymede. So off they’re sent, Eritrean and Ethiopian in two groups, neither really trusting each other, both haunted by the war and the hurts they’ve suffered, the people they’ve lost. And then they find that Ganymede is also haunted, and survival might be even more difficult than imagined. It’s a piece about survival and community, cooperation and exorcism, set against the harsh and cold reaches of an alien moon.
Keywords: War, Radiation, Augmentation, Observation, Jupiter, Refugees
Review: This story takes a very complicated situation and puts even more strain on it. It’s a place that’s harsh and rather unforgiving, because any mistake might lead to complete destruction, total loss. The colonists are supposed to be prepared for what they find, but it’s not like they were sent expecting alien ghosts interfering with their systems, fueled by some sort of quantum properties that the colonists’ consciousnesses don’t seem capable of dispelling. It’s a ghost story set on Ganymede and fueled by distrust, by layered hurts and hates, by a great loss that both unites the survivors and keeps them apart. So it’s a story for me about the ghosts that the people bring with them from Earth complicating the ghosts they find waiting for them. It’s a strain, a danger that they can’t really afford, and I love how the piece builds them up, a mystery that strains an already impossible situation. Both groups want to solve the issue on their own, but it’s not until Kedija imagines a solution that requires cooperation that any progress really gets made. And for me it’s a story of healing, of putting away the harms that are millions of miles away. Of refusing to fall back into a pattern that has already claimed both of their nations in fire and death. In a new home, they actually have to commit to be different. Still remembering and honoring their past, but not letting it stop them from living and reaching for a respite from the violence and hate that almost killed them all. And it’s a quiet piece that still walks along a razor edge of danger, that unfolds slowly and delicately under a waiting hammer poised to strike. It’s a bomb, ticking its way down, where compassion and forgiveness are the only ways to diffuse it. A wonderful read!
“Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (2524 words)
No Spoilers: A man named Samit dies on Venus, leaving behind two people—his granddaughter Maya and his friend, a robot named R. Brother Mekem. The piece unfolds in a solar system that has seen humanity spread to every corner, from the cloud cities of Venus to the far off Outer Planets. Where people can upload themselves into a kind of afterlife/internet known as the Conversation and where even the hostile realities of Venus can be tamed by the will and the technology of humanity. Through all that, it’s a rather mournful and careful story, revealing a man through the lives he touched, the memories of others, and the fleeting beauty of flowers.
Keywords: Venus, Death, War, Flowers, Memories
Review: This is a beautiful piece, full of this elegant sweep of the solar system, romantic and almost magical in how it imagines people having spread and shaped things to suit them. And yet I think the piece really looks at that and challenges that, because just under this grandeur, this hope at a bright future, there’s this pain and this violence and this war that people just don’t talk about. That people have fought and suffered in and then tried their best to get away from. And it’s in that conflict and in that trying to get away from that past that these people have found a sort of peace and a desire to do some good. To atone for the things they did, the sins they committed. They try and fill the worlds with beauty and with caring, with gentleness and with a hope that maybe people don’t have to destroy. Even as the destruction seems to continue, and the young run headlong into the pursuit of something that they can feel, where they can be powerful and alive, not yet old enough to just want something soft and quiet. It’s a contrast that I really like, the sort of pumping vitality of Maya’s world, where she’s one with her machine and reshaping a planet to make it more suitable for humans, and the world Samit lived, where he takes care of his gardens, and tends the plants, and appreciates the beauty that they show him. And yeah, it’s a piece I feel really excels in understatement, in subtlety, in a light touch. That conjures up this wonderful setting and then focuses on this small, intimate moment. Not the wars and not even really the terraforming, but the grief about the loss of this old man, and the weave of memories and grief that ripple in the wake left by his passing. A fantastic way to close out the new fiction of the issue!