|Art by Arthur Haas|
There’s lots of news in this March issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, plus six new stories (five short stories and one novelette). Mainly, the publication will be adding more translations to its offerings, replacing reprints with new translations of Korean SFF. I trust this doesn’t mean that the Chinese translations will stop, though the current issue again doesn’t have a translation. What is here are some stories that deal very poignantly and viscerally with grief, with oppression, and with people reaching out to other people. That finds people dealing with loss in very profound ways but working through those losses to try and find community, or joy, or love, or purpose. The stories feature moments great and small of people starting something, taking a chance and sparking change. And life. And hope. So without further delay, let’s get to the reviews!
“But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (8332 words)
No Spoilers: Dengwen is a data analyst working with SETI, and a person who has struggled with trying to conceive and carry a child to term. Who has perhaps given up, just as many seem to have given up on the planet as a whole, hoping to find some salvation in space, from another sentient civilization. Only that hope is slim and fragile, made bold by a promising lead but still with years to find out if it might be salvation or ruin. The piece is slow and contemplative, draining in the sense that Dengwen’s life is a sort of fighting retreat, trying always despite the odds and dangers to have a child that won’t seem to come. Bent toward that one thing and all the complex feelings that come with it. It’s a somewhat startling read, damaged by the weight of everything falling apart and maybe, despite everything, coming back together anyway.
Keywords: CW- Miscarriage/Pregnancy, Space, Aliens, Blood, First Contact
Review: The story does a very good job at conveying this almost numb hope that keeps Dengwen going. This drive toward having a child, which is such a complicated thing with the extinction of humanity looming. Looming not because of the necessity to reproduce, though, but because of the near futility of it. That having a child might be just dooming that child to the end of the world. Throw into the mix that Dengwen seems incapable of having a child, that she’s miscarried and despite her best efforts had no luck in conceiving since. The sweeping action of the story, the thrust into space and the subsequent arrival on an alien world, is almost muted next to the strained hope that maybe she can still have a child, that it’s not out of reach. The mission itself echoes this, the ship in some ways like her body, with this great mission and great potential, but as she sees it at the end of the day it’s mostly just empty. A floating barren cage of metal. It’s how I feel the story makes her feel, like she can never really reach what she wants personally just as professionally her mission finds no cure, finds no salvation from an alien race. And yet. And yet I think the story shows that failure there doesn’t mean that all hope has to be lost. For me it’s a rather dark story because of the loss that she feels, because she can find no real meaning outside of having a child, and that drive never sublimates into something different. But the result of it is a little more nebulous. It’s her desire that ends up kickstarting something. Something that maybe should have been left dormant, that maybe is dangerous and deadly. But that maybe is beautiful and powerful all the same. That maybe is alive all the same, and it does seem to help give people direction and purpose and something to work for. But yeah, it’s a strange read and a somewhat haunting experience that I definitely think people should spend some time with!
“When Home, No Need to Cry” by Erin K. Wagner (3614 words)
No Spoilers: Karen is an astronaut who has been grounded by a cancer that seems linked perhaps to an incident she had in space. In an institution and sick, nearing death, she has the chance to think about her life and the end of it and what she wants from it. The piece is heavy with the weight of expectation, the way that death seems to to forgo any pretense of stalking her. Instead it’s walking slowly toward every day, measuring her up, and then walking on again. The piece is about how a person can meet the end, and really about how they can choose to meet the end, on their own terms instead of those dictated by chance, illness, and doctors.
Keywords: Space, CW- Cancer, Hospitalization, Escape, Insubordination, Stowaway, Death
Review: I like how the story grounds Karen here when really that’s the last thing she wants. For me it gets at the idea of recovery and hope and life. Because for Karen it’s not really life if it means being stuck in an institution. And yet for everyone else it’s something that they take as a matter of course. Of course she must want to get treated because who doesn’t want to live? It’s healthy to want to live so that must be a good above all else. And yet for Karen what’s healthy and what’s not isn’t so straight forward. She knows that she’s dying but in some ways I feel she’s dying either way, and the real thing that concerns her is how and where. Because she’s an astronaut. Because she belongs up there in the clear black of space, pushing out against the pressure pushing her back toward Earth. Because she wants to meet that great unknown out there, doing what she loves, rather than running from it. Rather than hiding from it, waiting for it to find her in a hospital bed. There’s something alive about being able to go and be out there, and even if it kills her that’s how she wants to live and I like that the story makes room for that, finds in it some triumph even as it’s also rather heartbreaking. It’s a delicate read, powerful and rending and very good!
“Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson (4645 words)
No Spoilers: In something of a cyberpunk romance, Maya is an air seller going through life like everyone else—a bit desperately. Hope isn’t an easy thing to come by in a place that monetizes everything, that squeezes people in every way they can be squeezed. But one day she sees a man with a scarf who seems to take some of the weight of life off of her. They meet. And the rest is a rather sweet story that seems to take a look at what romance in the age of rampant exploitation and technology and scarcity. It looks at all the ways that people can be turned into something like labor drones, and all the ways they can’t be, which is rather beautiful even as it’s rather dark as well.
Keywords: Air, Work, Art, Dating, Employment
Review: Or maybe I should call it a cyberpunk fairytale. About a man and a woman finding each other despite the difficulties, despite all the ways that it’s not supposed to work in this setting, in this world where time is money and relationships are, at best, a distraction. Where people don’t have the same training for them, because their lives have always been about time and working and maximizing their output. But for Maya and Dima there seems to be a little bit of hope. Something to reach for. Ways that working together can make things easier and better for both of them. In many ways I think it can be read as a rather classic fairy tale, with it’s happily every after, but I think that it holds enough of a bite to question and subvert that, as well. Because the story pulls away but without the assurance that they’ll really be able to make whatever they have work long term. Because in that world nothing really is supposed to work long term. It works until their bodies begin to break down, until they can’t make their production goals, and then it begins to decline, and to spiral, because that what this setting seems to do. And in the end there’s the feeling that maybe they will have enough. Maybe they’ll make it and find something to work, and always find some way to work, but the promise of the happy ending is one that I feel carries this important caveat, this question for the reader to answer. Of how much they’re willing to accept. Of how much they’ll let this romantic ideal make them think that the setting isn’t all bad. And what is that if not a bit of romance like the air advert? Something to get people to keep going and not think that this all needs to change, needs to see a massive reorganization because it’s wrong? For me it’s a sharp story that works in this layered way, where the romance is sweet and fun and joyous but it’s doing something else darker and much more subversive as well. A fantastic read!
“Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris (6776 words)
No Spoilers: Raneka is the granddaughter of a revolutionary, a man who was at the heart of a great many plots and who helped a great many people fight back against the empire he was a part of. it made him a lot of enemies, and it lost him Raneka’s affections, for it set her on a path to try and reject his teachings and his mission. Or so she thought. Reality has been muddled by manipulation and false memories, though, and the story explores the fallout from that, and the devastating effectiveness of wars fought in ballrooms and drawing rooms. The piece is fun and tightly plotted, so very poised at the edge of ruin and Raneka having to make tough decisions and trust her instincts to guide her where her memories have betrayed her. It’s a dash of intrigue, a spoonful of revenge, and a heaping helping of shit hitting the fan in this story of ballgowns and powder kegs.
Keywords: Parties, Memories, Family, Spies, Insurrection
Review: I always love returning to this setting and all its myriad strangenesses. It’s something I wish I had a map to (and okay, okay, what I probably wish more is that I had a collection I could hold and go through all at once), but that in many ways doesn’t need one, because the actions in each story stand on their own. Here is a story of a legacy stolen, of a family splintered when it should not have been. Because Raneka has been manipulated and coerced, controlled in some deeply disturbing ways. Not because she was physically violated but because she was psychically violated into betraying herself and her family. Into turning her back on her grandfather and losing the chance to know him better. And I love that so much is motivated by that, by the insidious and violent ways that the empire works. If it had left Raneka alone she might have still sought to avoid conflict, and might have been able to succeed. With their interference, though, they pushed her in the opposite direction, to see the evil that she had been avoiding and decide at last to face it the only way she can, by turning the tables on those that would have used her for murder and intrigue. It’s not exactly a triumphant piece, seeing as how it plunges the setting into war, but it’s one that recognizes that there are some peaces that are worse than some wars, some status quos that must be fought against, lest their victims pile higher than the casualties from any battlefield. And I do just like the mix of “high society” and revolution on display here, the resilience and resourcefulness that Raneka shows in finally embracing the mantle that her grandfather left for her—that of revolutionary. An excellent read!
“Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson (3246 words)
No Spoilers: Ilana is a kind of aquatic humanoid who has just lost her mother to a wasting sickness caused by the radiation that comes from her people’s dependence on a material called hypera for energy. It’s a valuable commodity but a toxic one, and despite the dangers Ilana and her sister are out in the deepest depths hunting for it so that they might be able to move into a new home farther from the heart of the energy reactors where the radiation is worst. Of course, there are things other than valuable and mysterious treasures out there in the deep... The piece is full of loss and a omnipresent darkness. Ilana’s hope has been battered, all her prospects dimmed in the face of a future of merely getting by until falling sick or watching more around her fall sick, and this grim and solemn tone is only broken by frantic and thrilling action resolving into something like the dawning of new hope.
Keywords: Siblings, Loss, Under Water, Mer-People, Radiation, Adaptation
Review: I love the world that the story introduces, but also the mix of styles that it manages to capture. It’s slow in many ways, about the decay that Ilana observes around her, the threat of succumbing to the wasting illnesses brought on by the radiation. And even as she knows that it well could be fatal, Ilana’s still out there, exposing herself further, because she knows that it’s the only way for her to get even a little bit of security for herself and her sister. Even so it’s a bleak sort of hope, and it shows in the way that the grief pull at her, hinders her like her suit, making her sluggish. And then, of course, things kick right into a sort of horrific action, where the darkness of the depths comes alive with malevolence and tries its best to end her, giving her the option of just accepting the inevitable or fighting back against it, striving not just to survive but to find a reason to go further, to find reason to think that the situation will actually improve. And it’s a rather thrilling ride, fun and exhilarating and yet emotionally striking as well, and I appreciate the way it layers hopes, treasures, and especially darknesses giving way to light. The voice is strong and compelling, and despite the distinct fantasy (or fantastical science fiction) setting, the feeling is definitely one that I understand. I’m not sure that the kind of adaptation that she notices is always possible in all situations, but I do think it shows that there is hope, that maybe through a different kind of dark there is a light waiting where Ilana and her people can adapt to the radiation they must endure to function as a civilization. There’s certainly a lot that can go wrong there, but I like that the story focuses on the need to know that it going right is also possible, in order to keep hope alive. A wonderful story!
“The Thing With the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun (5154 words)
No Spoilers: Helga is a derby girl. That, really, is the heart of things. Pushed to join a sport by parents who didn’t “approve” of her weight, she finally settled into derby and in some ways it became her home. Her family. Even when (while she was on the junior team) the senior team all perished because of an unspeakable evil. Even when the entire planet is overrun by aliens bent on invasion. The piece explores that with gusto and energy, with a rather charming voice and a great sense of fun. It’s a piece that doesn’t take itself too seriously, mixing aliens and eldritch horrors with superpowers and kicking ass, but at the same time there is a lot here about belonging, bodies, anger, and the pressure to conform.
Keywords: Roller Derby, Aliens, Magic, Superpowers, Sports, Invasion
Review: As said, this is a deeply weird story. As a fan of roller derby, though, it’s also a deeply fun story about a young woman becoming more comfortable with who she is. The piece, for all it’s a bit wacky, is not without a heavy dose of darkness, both in the form of all the gruesome death, and also in the more “normal” ways that Helga deals with people putting her down and making assumptions about her. Trying to get her to fit into something that she doesn’t want, that doesn’t feel right. The story is about a world that is wildly outside of her control, that is full of dangers and where she feels like there really isn’t much she can do. Except that there’s a power that allows her to fight back. To do something good. To be powerful and in control. Well...sort of. I like the way the story plays with the idea of control, that once Helga and the others put on the helmets, there’s this danger because it’s a corrupting influence. That it makes them want to take it too far because it finally gives them this full outlet for their rage and frustration and it feels so good to give into that. And yet at the same time they’re doing harm to more than just the alien menace, and even with the aliens they are being brutal in a way that does kinda make them a different kind of bad guy, even if they’re using against other bad guys. Its a complicated situation, because as much as derby gave her a place to belong and an outlet for some of her anger, it doesn’t fix the underlying issues. It doesn’t mean that people treat her better. There’s no amount of assertiveness or confidence that really insulates people (and especially women) from people wanting more, wanting them always to be perfect and skinny and proper. And even an alien invasion doesn’t really stop that. But I do like that she stops from giving into her rage fully, because even as she knows that it’s still bullshit that she has to deal with her mother’s disapproval and criticism still, she trusts herself to navigate it and keep looking for ways to be happy and make a difference. A fine read!