|Art by J.R. Slattum|
It’s another big issue from Clarkesworld, with five short stories (including one Korean translation) and one novelette. And a lot of the stories deal with colonization and death, religion and intolerance. The characters are often faced with people who are different, and must decide how to approach that. With fear and hatred? With distrust? With a hunger for exploitation? At their most hopeful, the stories imagine a future with humans among the stars, embracing a vast community and cooperation. At their bleakest, they reveal people victimized and destroyed by dogma and fear. All in all, though, it’s a rich and complex issue full of big ideas and careful character work. To the reviews!
“The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer (4258 words)
No Spoilers: On a distant planet undergoing human colonization and terraforming, a sentient species, the Ofti, are looking down the barrel of extinction. Their population is down to four, and they are losing space to the encroachment of human invasive plants. Some on the council of humans in charge of the colonization want to do more about preserving as much of the native people and wildlife as possible, while others seem interested only in the practical value of what the Ofti can offer. And it’s a piece that looks at colonizers, and guilt, and violence, and plays with reader expectations of identity and voice.
Keywords: CW- Extinction/Genocide, Colonization, Terraforming, Invasive Species, Preservation
Review: I love the way the story obfuscates who the first person perspective is throughout the piece. Because at first it seems like it must be one of the councilors who is advocating for the preservation of the Ofti, because they are spending time within the walled habitat, because they seem to care about the art and culture of the Ofti. As the piece moves, though, the evidence gathers more and more that shows that the first person perspective doesn’t actually care about the Ofti, doesn’t really care about their survival. Rather, they care about ownership, about possession. They are eager in some ways for the Ofti to be dead, because it will mean that they no longer get a voice of their own. That’s what makes Motas so chilling, so much a shitbag—he’s embraced his role as colonizer, completely believing that he’s better able to interpret and control the Ofti art and legacy. Except of course that it erases his role as their killer, as their destruction. Their history becomes divorced from the violence done to them, the injustice of the way that humans have come in and eradicated a species that can call it such. And I appreciate how the story doesn’t’ soften that blow, doesn’t make his fascination and appreciation of the Ofti art anything but a further violence, a further greed and entitlement. A way of showing that he has power over them and get to pretend to care about the law when he will flagrantly violate it and then use his position to cover it up. It really does show the fragility of his character, the way that he can’t stand people going against him, cannot stand being seen as anything less than dominant and in control. It’s an unsettling and careful story that does a great job of building up this wrenching situation and making the reader sit with extinction and complicity. A wonderful read!
“Erdenweh” by Bo Balder (6016 words)
No Spoilers: Onway is a psychologist on the planet Nueva Esperanza, where humans have been living for a few generations. A new kind of mental illness has been cropping up, though, where people experience intense longing and depression, sometimes culminating in suicide. They call it Erdenweh and it seems to have something to do with some deep longing for Earth, for the environment where humans evolved. It’s a kind of mystery that Onway begins to investigate, quickly finding that the scope of her research might have to greatly increase, and might lead her in some very unexpected directions. Careful but enthusiastic in its scientific psychological inquiry, it complicates the ways that people in the setting have set out for the stars, and what they might have to do to save themselves.
Keywords: Colonization, Bacteria, CW- Suicide, Psychology, Science
Review: I love how the story looks at how humans are members of a longer ecosystem, even when we have managed to mostly escape needing a wild ecosystem in order to survive. We can get by without prey animals, without a great many things, but at the smallest levels we are still very much in parasitic and mutualist relationships with our normal flora, including the bacteria in our guts. And away from Earth, those beneficial populations can be at risk because of the sanitized nature of living on another world, where everything has been cleaned. And I love that the story deals with how that might begin to manifest in psychological ways because, I’d guess, people can unconsciously sense that they are suffering from something that is bad, where they are in danger, and they don’t know how. Did you know that people experiencing a hemolytic reaction (like getting a transfusion with incompatible blood) can have as a symptom before they experience physical distress a sense of doom? It points to some physical dangers that provoke a sense of deep unease that seems to categorize a part of how this Erdenweh presents, that it’s some sense of coming doom, that the human experiment of colonizing other is about to collapse. It’s the canary in the coalmine, and there’s the sense that Onway senses it as well, in small ways that she lets caring about herself go. It does very much put me in mind of certain trends on Earth now. Not that our gut bacteria are dying, but that people can sense that there will come a moment that things might collapse and they are struck by a deep depression and despair because of it. For me, the story points to how populations can become in some ways infected by sadness and depression, in such a way that finding a solution can seem impossible. Except that Onway stumbles on a source of hope, a place where humanity isn’t kept in sterile conditions, where messiness still gives rise to an increased resilience and, maybe, a path where humans can maintain their hold on the distant worlds that they have spread to. It’s an interesting thought, the need for a bit of dirtiness in order to maintain health, and the story does a great job of drawing the reader to this finding, this possibility, in a compelling and interesting way. And while it doesn’t quite get to the point of drawing this possible conclusion out into any sort of prescription to counter the disease, it is definitely a story to spend some time with. A great read!
“The Peppers of GreenScallion” by Myung-Hoon Bae, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar (7386 words)
No Spoilers: Chaeeunshinji and the narrator of this story are children on a world populated mainly by a joint research settlement between two governments that end up going to war, causing a strife between the two “sides” on the planet’s surface and, it turns out, between the narrator and Shinji, who before had been his closest friend. That’s not the only result of the war, though. The narrator’s side begins to experience rationing and a very irregular food rotation because all the food has to be delivered to the planet, to the point where it seems like one side is eating entirely meat. The piece examines friendship and community set against the artificial lines and borders that war creates, and shows people reaching out instead of tearing each other apart when things start becoming truly unbearable.
Keywords: Rationing, War, Meat, Fruit, Borders, Colonization
Review: I like how this story establishes this “war” going on between the narrator and his childhood friend and then contrasts it with the more actual war that goes on between the power in charge of the two sides of the research facility. Because it shows in many ways how the “real” war that is fought is really no different from the larger one, borne mostly out of stubbornness and pride, neither side really wanting to back down, not wanting to admit that they’re wrong. And I love the ridiculousness of the story, the elements that make it, even for a story about war and intolerance, a rather hilarious read. Like the narrator’s mom being a big-shot hairstylist, but only in zero-gravity, so that on the planet she’s regarded as rather terrible. Or how these irregular food drops mean that people are stuck eating the same thing for months and months, to the point that they want to give up but are told they have to. And I do very much like that the story doesn’t go as dark as it could have, that it resists the impulse to have people attach each other for resources. Even when things are dire, the “attack” that gets planned is one of food, of temptation, of trying to bring everyone together to share and benefit each other instead of giving into the prejudice and fear that keeps them apart. It’s very fun and sweet and lightly romantic, just a really pleasant experience that I definitely recommend checking out!
“Said of Angels” by Eric Del Carlo (13394 words)
No Spoilers: The Arch Hierophant is the most important religious figure in the Cooperation, a great body cover most of the galaxy. Within the Cooperation, most of the people fall under the domain of one of the five Mights. And the Mights are pressing the Arch Hierophant to make a ruling on the divinity of a historical and religious figure. Complicating matters is a prophecy of a war that might tear the galaxy apart, a possible conspiracy trying to prevent that war, and a single cleric from Earth allowed onto the palace world of the Hierophant for the first time. It’s a story that takes its time, examining the problem from many angles as it walks the pristine and awe-inspiring lengths of the palace and as the Arch Hierophant remembers his past and contemplates the future.
Keywords: Religion, War, Theology, Poetry, Architecture
Review: This is a rather big story, not just in terms of length but of scope. The piece talks about awe and wonder, and there’s certainly something to be said about how the story positions the Arch Hierophant’s situation, where making any decision has the possibility to plunge the galaxy into war. Which might precisely the point of why the Mights are doing what they’re doing, because in the end they do believe that might makes right, and want a chance to prove their dominance rather than maintaining the Cooperation. Which leaves out not only the thirty percent of the galaxy that doesn’t belong to a Might, but any of the Mights that might not want to support the divinity of a figure who, it seems clear, wasn’t really divinely inspired. And I like the tone the story sets in navigating this huge thing, where the Arch Hierophant himself sort of balks at the idea of it because he doesn’t want to be the person who gives the galaxy a reason to claim that an ancient prophecy has been fulfilled and give people a pretense to go to war. It’s an impossible decision and yet one that, ultimately, he has to make on faith. Because his role is to do just that, to be guided by his faith and his sense of right and wrong. To resist the pressure to go along with political expedience at the expense of something that’s always been more important to him. It’s a moving story, really capturing the turmoil that he’s going through and how a cleric from Earth actually helps him figure out what he’s always known. It’s a situation where he needs to get some perspective and needs to ground himself, and I like that him reaffirming his faith is the thing that convinces everyone that he’s lost it. It shows that in the face of war and greed there really isn’t winning sometimes. That sometimes a crisis of faith is being presented with a no-win situation and having to still own your decision. I’m super curious to know what happens after the story closes (the implications are rather bleak), but it’s a powerful and quiet story and another great read!
“Bonobo” by Robert Reed (5731 words)
No Spoilers: Told in rotating perspectives, this story is the portrait of a family in times of change. Where the daughter has a large announcement, and the brothers each have their own ways of meeting the future, and the parents are lost in their own hurts and interests and hopes. On the edge of technology that allow people to alter their genetics and essentially “leave the human species,” the piece examines what that might mean, and how family might remain even as the members of that family interpret what that means in very different ways. It’s a strange story and one that views the same events through very different lenses, giving something like a comprehensive look at what’s happening and how it impacts each person, and how each of these people view the future and all its possibilities.
Keywords: Transformation, AIs, Family, Modification, Time
Review: For me this story is about the complexities of family, the messiness of trauma and the ways that family move around, away from, and toward one another. It’s also I think about how each person relates to the future. For the matriarch, the future is something of a threat, a promise of losing her power and influence to the technological advances she doesn’t quite understand. She is left with silent anger and spite, which have always been her tools. Meanwhile the daughter views this technology as a way to assert her independence, to embrace something new that will essentially take her outside the cage of expectations and family. A cage the eldest son thinks he wants to embrace even as he struggles with his desires to step outside of it as well. A cage that the youngest son unlocked long ago, but sees no real reason to break apart. The story contrasts the ways that the characters move into the future, each to varying degrees embracing the tech that allows them to move beyond the traditional definitions of humanity. Like people who push the boundaries of what family means, each member gets to define themselves and their relationship to the rest of humanity. Neither seems to be placed as superior to the others, though, which I like, each person allowed their own space and story, their own voice and autonomy. And for me the story seems to play with the ways humanity might evolve, not to its own extinction but rather adapting into a future ripe with possibilities. It’s a strangely hopeful story for me, about love and connections and rebellion, and it’s worth checking out!
“Field Mice” by Andy Dudak (5803 words) [my apologies on misgendering the MC originally]
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is something of a double agent, originally sent by their government to infiltrate an enemy and then going to work for themself. The reason is part of the core of the story and the conflict between the two nations—the continuity of the soul. Sylvania, where the narrator is from, believes that the soul is continuous and therefore cannot survive what Metropotamia (the nation the narrator is sent to infiltrate) holds as its highest reward in a religion that firmly believes in a discontinuous soul. Seduced by the promise of an eternal, knowable afterlife, the narrator is faced with a crisis when they are part of a team that captures another Syvanian agent—one who might blow their cover if things go too far. The piece is dark and moody with heavy religious implications, solid world building, and a rather harrowing frame.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousnesses, Afterlife, Interrogation, Religion, Spies
Review: I really like the layering that the story accomplishes, both in the way the narrator doubts and affirms their beliefs in both the continuity and discontinuity of the soul and in the way the story is framed, as a sort of uncertain question mark as to what happened to them. To me the voice of the story makes it seem like they’re being assayed, that they’re being toyed with by an organization that finally got wise to who they were. I don’t think that’s the only reading, though, though it’s quite possible that it’s a hell dreamed up by one of the people he worked with. I do like that a large part of the story is looking at how those people who don’t believe in the continuity of the soul still act pretty much the same as those who do. They are two sides of the same coin, both intolerant, both using the same kinds of justifications for their actions. They both utilize the carrot and stick of heaven and hell, though in very different ways. So I like further that in the end, what the narrator begins to see is that it’s hard to say if it matters which side is right, because the outcome might be the same. At least, for the narrator, who’s to say if they're in one afterlife or the other? They’re alone, and that’s a rather profound place to be, their first instinct to confess, an act both secular and religious. And the answer is left for the reader to imagine, for the reader to struggle with? Have they been assayed, to be tortured forever by a human mind? Are they being judged by a higher power, perhaps for killing a man? Or is there something else at work, an end that doesn’t involve either of those? Is it the narrator at all, or some sort of facsimile? The story dwells on all of these questions, making the readers sit with the anxiety and uncertainty the narrator is trying to navigate. And it makes for a fascinating read!