|Art by Arthur Haas|
It’s a full month of fiction and Clarkesworld, with seven stories (six short stories, one novelette), including two different translated pieces (one from Chinese and one from the brand new line of Korean SFF that the publication will be putting out this year). And the pieces by and large focus on the past, and on family, and on trying to recover from the world having gone in some unexpected directions. The characters are looking for people that they cannot find, that are no longer there to be found, and it’s some emotional, rending work, but also full of resilient hope, and audacious survival, and there are tons of moments of tenderness and compassion and love even in settings torn apart by war and violence and loss. And yeah, let’s dive into the reviews!
“The Last Eagle” by Natalia Theodoridou (6220 words)
No Spoilers: Fabiano is searching for his only friend, Beatrice. A woman who taught him that he could be himself, that he could choose his own name and own destiny. A woman who went missing without a word. Fabiano is helped by a friend of his cousin’s, the exuberant João, and together they travel through a landscape ruined by war, but where people are still holding on, wounded but alive, striving to make something of themselves in the inhospitable surroundings. It’s a tender and intimate story about hope and identity, about healing after devastation, and finding a way toward something new and beautiful and affirming. Go in with your feels well protected, though, because this one might make you cry a bit (but totally not because I cried or anything. Nope. Nothing to see here).
Keywords: War, Searching, Trans MC, Mechanical People, Mountains
Review: This is a rather wrenching story about a young trans man on a mission to find his missing friend. And, well, finding something else instead. The piece centers loss and devastation, the fallout from a great war that has left most of the area in tatters. And for me this draws a line to the life that Fabiano is living. Alive, yes, which is a big something, but with these wounds that aren’t exactly easy to heal. With a body that doesn’t feel right, though it feels better than it did. The war for him in some ways is over, in that he’s got hormones now, but the aftermath is not all rosy sunsets and smooth seas. He’s still fighting, struggling against the weight of everything he’s endured, still unable really to trust people easily because he doesn’t know how they’ll react. And yet in João he finds someone who maybe can help him further. Beatrice was the person who first helped him see who he could be, and now he’s met someone who sees him as he is and wants him, wants to be with him. Which is this beautiful thing that develops through the story, a moving way that the characters are able to come together to help each other with their griefs and with their burdens. But it still leaves what happened to Beatrice. And the story doesn’t really answer that question, doesn’t give that kind of closure. Instead, it faces Fabiano with a growing realization that his life will go on and he needs to get to the work of rebuilding. Of forging his own life and, maybe, trusting Beatrice to forge her own, as well. And in the mean time there is still the connection they have, the fragile and strong and beautiful thing they built together. And the wondrous things they can still do, can still be, in their lives and in the greater world. Trying to fix what can be fixed, trying to soothe what can be soothed, and trying to be true to themselves, whatever happens. It’s a fantastic story, deep and emotional and just so so good. Go check it out!
“Ripen” by Yukimi Ogawa (9437 words)
No Spoilers: Kiriko and her mentor are craftspeople and colorless, which in their country makes them second class citizens. Only those colorful people with patterns and unique attributes to their skin are allowed to really interact with foreigners. And one of these, Madam Enamel, is in something of a difficult position, worried that she’ll lose business at her establishment if people find out that her plum coloring is changing into something that looks like rotting fruit. Using a bit of creative persuasion, she convinces Kiriko and her mentor to help, despite it being illegal. The job gets rather severely complicated, though, and the piece explores class structures and care and people trying to do right by people, regardless of their color.
Keywords: Colors, Tourism, Queer Characters(?), Patterns, Crafts, Classes, Laws
Review: The setting that the story introduces is fascinating, the world building at first seeming to go only skin deep but actually pushing deeper and deeper with each new twist and turn. The world is one where there are a small number of colorful people who have become something of a cash cow for the nation, whose government uses them to gain influence as a tourist location. It means that everyone who is colorless becomes someone who can’t be exploited and so the government cares less about them. And yet the truth on the ground and in the streets is more complicated, the system reinforced by language barriers and physical distance, certain areas unsafe for colorless people and the police much more likely to take action against them if found to be somewhere they’re not supposed to be. Which puts Kiriko and her mentor in a very difficult position, because they’re being used the entire story, always unable to refuse because their position is more precarious. And they try their hardest to make the best of the situation, to satisfy who they have to in order to stay relatively safe, relatively free. Until it all comes crashing down and there needs to be a patsy, a fall person. And what I love about this is that the story resists giving into that. The characters resist giving into that. They push back against the pressure to have this end “as it’s supposed to” and instead finds a way that they don’t have to accept injustice. Yes, it means that those with more power have to take a hit, have to give something up, but for them it’s something they can recover with time, whereas for Kiriko and her mentor it’s something they would have lost forever. That would have truly ruined them. Not that there isn’t lasting impact, and the story does have an almost bittersweet note to it for me because it still demands loss, still doesn’t let everyone be happy right away. But the wound is shallower than it could have been, and there is a feeling for me that these wounds will heal, for all that things won’t just go back to how they were. It’s a vividly painted world, a compelling set of characters, and a fine read!
“Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird” by Eric Schwitzgebel (4920 words)
No Spoilers: J11-L is a terraforming robot programmed to try and bring back sentient life in the model of the people who built it. Or, that’s one of its top priorities. Along with that, it is also programmed to care for a stuffed animals named Monkey. The story takes a very long period of time and hops about, showing J11-L’s progress through the years, its ups and downs, emphasizing always that it is a robot, that though it speaks and cares for Monkey, though it says it loves Monkey, these are things that come from programs, not sentiment. The piece shows just how much people want to see emotion and consciousness in beings or objects that meet certain criteria, that are framed in certain ways. But as cold as that might seem, the story is incredibly warm, about the power of care and joy and promise of building compassion into the programming of even an unfeeling robot.
Keywords: Terraforming, Stuffed Animals, Monkeys, Robots, Diaspora, Consciousness
Review: It’s rather difficult to face in some ways that J11-L isn’t “alive” in the way we normally mean that word. That it’s a robot and not conscious. I think a part of me wants to argue against that, but I love how the story plays with that, imagining this situation where a robot seems so alive, seems to want to be alive and conscious, but is really just acting according to a very specific programming from millions of years ago. It’s a wonderful way to explore not just the way that people tend to ascribe emotions and consciousness to just about everything, especially in telling a story and building sentences that have actors and narratives. More than that, though, I see the story exploring just how important J11-L’s behavior is, even absent consciousness. Because it is a mirror. Because it is a teacher. Because people could model their own behavior on this robot that was sent so far. And in that way a piece of the people who died, who built J11-L, can live on. Because they created that mirror to their best selves. They sent J11-L out not just to create and seed sentient life, but to teach them how to be good to each other. How to care for each other. It needed to seem to feel in order to create this nurturing environment, just as it was programmed to do. And in return it is made conscious. And she is allowed to be a person, aware of herself in new ways and so she steps through her own mirror and emerges, now being helped and cared for by the very people who she helped and cared for. It’s this way of showing a joyous and positive cycle that okay, maybe isn’t without its dangers (because who’s to say that J11-L wasn’t programmed with some Bad Shit, too, that we just don’t see) but mostly it’s just this wholesome and heartwarming story about hope in the wide reaches of dark that make up the universe. A great read!
“The Flowering” by Soyeon Jeong, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar (5336 words)
No Spoilers: Framed as one side of a kind of interview, this story questions a woman whose sister was involved in some illegal activities deemed against the interests of the Korean government. And specifically against the Constituent Quotient, a score that follows a person through their life and dictates how much freedom from surveillance and restrictions they have on travel and things like that. And the story circles around the titular event, a Flowering, that the narrator might have had some part in, though what part that was seems to be the topic of the interview. The tone of the story is rather charming, the narrator not exactly a fan of her rebel sister, and it lends itself to a slightly crass, decidedly grumpy take on an event that has changed things in a huge way for the country.
Keywords: Prison, Family, Flowers, Internet, Resistance
Review: I really love the tone and voice of this story because for me it speaks so much to the familial relationship between the narrator and her sister. That feeling of always being judged in terms of the older sibling. And in this case that feeling that the older sibling can do no wrong despite the fact that she’s in prison and has kind of screwed up a lot of her family’s life because of the regime they live under. And further, the story just explores this future where the internet is controlled via a score the government requires people to accept in able to even access what limited internet they allow. The narrator’s sister wants an open and free internet and so works toward that, but her sister has her eyes on much more grounded things. And I just love the moment when the narrator talks about priorities and says that for her and her parents the sister is a quarter of their circle. But for the sister they are just three people out of millions. And that’s a powerful statement, because I do feel the narrator is being portrayed as too cautious, as too complicit, as too willing to accept things that she shouldn’t. In effect, the story seems to me to be calling for people to expand who it is they care about. Not just the tiny family but all people, working for them to create something that will allow them to grow without the interference of those that want to control them. And that idea of flowers comes up there, that they all do grow best when encouraged and not caged, not hedged in. But that the threat of the shears is intense and it takes some people rebelling to do something that will change the system. That will allow people some space and freedom. And it’s just a fun story with a nice flow and frame to it, and an excellent read!
“Social Darwinism” by Priya Chand (4690 words)
No Spoilers: Ishtar is a woman who was modified by her mother to need attention, a biohack that was meant to make her more what her mother wanted, but ended up having some very serious and long-lasting consequences. Now an adult, Ishtar does sex work and feels like she’s two different people sometimes, having used organic code to control some of the biohacks but still very much feeling the need to be seen. When she’s approached by a group offering to make many of her dreams come true, it seems almost too good to be true, and it just might be. The piece is often difficult but careful and complicated with its depiction of trauma and “risky” behavior, painting a very complex picture of Ishtar and her particular damage, and her particular agency, and it makes for a compelling if challenging experience.
Keywords: Genetic Manipulation, CW- Abuse, Interviews, Attention, Sex Work
Review: I love how this story looks at damage and abuse and trauma, specifically examining the ways that parents can use their children to perform certain ways, to exhibit certain behaviors that are much more about the parent, without ever really considering how that treatment (well, that abuse) will effect the child as they grow and develop. It takes it a step further then what we have available now, with parents able to hack their children into needing attention, into having to be so dependent on their parent that it’s supposed to assuage the parent’s fear of rejection, isolation, and unimportance. And yet at the same time most parents aren’t prepared for what that means, and Ishtar’s own relationship to her mother is wrenching and full of abuse and guilt and anger and shame. Because she does sex work and while in many ways she’s happy with that, eager to do it even, there’s another part of her that has these conflicted feelings about her need for attention. And when she meets a group that actively thinks she shouldn’t exist, that there should be laws to prevent exactly what was done to her, it’s further complicated by her own desire to be a person separate from the abuse and manipulation she survive. Because the narrative this group wants to put forward is that she was ruined by what was done to her, by the hacks her mother gave her. And yet going forward with that would be to say that she’s not a full person, that everything she does is morally wrong and that she’s unhappy with it all. Which erases her own agency. Which makes her simply broken. And the truth is so much more than that, and even if she doesn’t agree with what’s been done to her and doesn’t want anyone to be forced to go through it, she also sees that she’s being used to push a narrative that is still toxic, still wrong. And the way she confronts that is beautifully and viscerally rendered, and it makes for a rather difficult but very rewarding read. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!
“In Search of Your Memories” by Nian Yu, translated by Andy Dudak (3537 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is an admin for a sort of afterlife, for the uploaded consciousnesses of a great number of people. And specifically, they’re someone who investigates and tries to restore memories of uploaded people who experienced complications with their uploads. Only one such, Liang Sheng, presents a unique challenge that makes them confront what they do and what it means to remember, and to long for something that might never be possible to reach or hold. It’s a bit of a haunting story, to be honest, and one that captures a feeling of an almost lovely melancholy, where tragedy is tempered by love and care.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousness, Memories, Admins, Twins, Investigations
Review: I like how this story deals with the mystery of Liang Sheng and the kind of quiet tragedy that is his longing for something from his past that he can’t remember. Longing for some person from his past that he feels as if he has lost. And in many ways, despite the story being all about his life, his memories, his tragedy, the story is also not really about Liang Sheng. Because he’s distanced now from the memory of what has happened, to the point that even when the narrator learns the truth, it can’t be revealed. For me, at least, the story becomes much more about the narrator, and their choices, and how the story of Liang Sheng reminds them how to live and how to cherish what they have. And I appreciate just how quiet and ponderous this story is. From the initial request from Liang Sheng to the narrator’s own meandering investigation and accidental discoveries, the piece really doesn’t have much in the way of action. But there’s still a great deal of tension and longing, because there’s this mystery about what happened to Liang Sheng’s memories and who this person is who they can’t remember. As it builds, it reveals this moving and tender and rather tragic story of Liang Sheng and his brother, Liang Xuan, and how Xuan gave so much for Sheng, and how in the end the two became the same person, mostly Sheng but held together by Xuan. Which is how they were in life, as well, only now the two are both always together and forever separate. Because they are one person but with the memory, however vague, of being two, and there’s no going back to that. It’s not the happiest story in that regard, quietly devastating as it is, but there’s a definite beauty to the piece, and from the way that the admin is moved, how they choose to go forward with their job and their life, and how they decide what they’re going to tell Liang Sheng. And, more importantly, how they decide what they’re not going to tell. A great read!
“Skyscrapers in the Sand” by Y.M. Pang (1830 words)
No Spoilers: Xuming is on a personal quest to fulfill the final request of someone who meant a lot to her. The piece is filled with a purpose and a music as Xuming remembers and works, the world around her showing signs of intense damage. The story has a lonely feel to it but also for me a feeling of healing. That this journey that Xuming is making is also a kind of exorcism, where she is burying this ghost from her past so that she doesn’t have to carry it anymore. Which leaves her with some options, none of which seem entirely great. But it does open up those possibilities, and a hope maybe for healing and perseverance.
Keywords: Music, Relationships, Loss, Last Wills, Post-Disaster
Review: For me this story focuses heavily on loss. On a world that has been so incredibly changed, reshaped and devastated so that she’s walking through a city but really over it, through the desert that now rests on top of it. And she’s carrying the past with her. Her own past and the seemingly intimate relationship that she had and that ended, but also the person she was then and the expectations that she had. For me, the story is one of having survived and not really knowing what to do next. Of being full of hurt and complicated emotions and having to decide what to do when the range of decisions has been narrowed rather dramatically. The choices that Xuming wishes she had are just not available, and she’s left with what she can still do. There is a future still out there, even if it’s one that doesn’t really inspire the same kind of hope that maybe she once had. But first she has to bury that past, those expectations, and all that went with them. Which for her takes the form of going out into the desert to bury a song by an ex that might well be about her, and making it into a kind of time capsule. Putting down under the sand so maybe it will survive. But in some ways I feel like it’s necessary not to preserve it but to clear it out of the way. She needs to bury it because it’s so hard to accept that all of it is gone. And I love that feeling that the ending captures with that, where she is left facing a future she doesn’t really want. But that because she’s able to bury this part of the past, her past, she’s at least able to move forward without fear and without fixating only on what’s been lost. It makes room for her to live, to survive, and to believe that there might be a future to find that song, which is a comfort at least in a time when comforts seem few and far between. A moving and lovely read!