|Art by Axel Sauerwald|
There’s A LOT to get to in the latest Clarkesworld, with seven new stories including three different translations (from Chinese, Korean, and Spanish). These are stories that tend to focus on relationships, on whether the world is worth saving, and on how to live in bleak times. The stories approach those ideas in many different ways, sometimes hopefully, sometimes...not. But they offer a lot of interesting worlds to explore and futures to imagine. Or pasts. Or alternate dimensions. It’s a nicely balanced issue that shows the beauty and tragedy and joy of humanity, and doesn’t really have any easy answers, but often finds comfort in the small connections people make with each other in the face of the giant and annihilating forces of the universe. There’s also an editorial on the state of short SFF that is well worth checking out. To the reviews!
“The Visible Frontier” by Grace Seybold (5473 words)
No Spoilers: Inlesh has signed onto a merchant vessel sailing on a great sea, learning the stars from his captain, who warns him of their impermanence and about not relying on maps. Despite that, he can’t help himself from asking questions and trying to draw the shape of his galaxy, the cities and the stars and all of it. He wants answers, wants adventure and exploration, and trade seems to be his route to what he wants most. Except that some answers might be more than he bargained for. It’s a beautifully rendered story that does very nicely capture sense of scope and history and world building. Inlesh’s world might seem familiar, almost archaic, but it reveals itself to be anything but in rather stunning fashion.
Keywords: Seas, Sailing, Exploration, Stars, Maps, Curiosity
Review: I really like how this story does the slow reveal of What’s Really Going On, making things seem almost fantastical before revealing the more sci-fi bend of the story. Which makes a lot of sense for how it all works, and the idea of stars as cities, of constant change and occasional calamity. It also helps to build the scope of the story, which I think is the most important to my reading. After all, this world, or world...thing, is orders of magnitude bigger than a planet. It’s huge, and that hugeness impacts what Inlesh comes to see as possible, to see as desirable. He starts off with such a curiosity and a drive to get out there and see things. To explore and to push the boundaries. And yet he ends the story completely different disheartened and content where he is. Which in some ways is disappointing, because it’s a bit bleak, but it does question of whether ambition and curiosity might be something impacted by scope and scale. When the world is only as big as Earth, and it seems possible to sail around it in one lifetime, it might seem easy to get excited about getting to it. When the world is so much bigger that there is no hope of seeing it all, or really even meaningfully mapping a significant amount of it, and when that world is shown to be only a tiny part of an even bigger galaxy...well, that leaves Inlesh drained of his wonder, of his desire to go out and try. Which is an interesting commentary on how living in the face of a different scale might effect people, and might help to explain why this world operates largely in ignorance of what Inlesh learns. Again, it’s a bit of a bleak read on people and their ability to maintain wonder and drive in the face of what is essentially the awesome and sublime, but it’s an interesting and lovely journey, and definitely worth checking out!
“Xingzhou” by Ng Yi-Sheng (5526 words)
No Spoilers: Told by a narrator about their grandparents, this piece explores a city, a continent, a jewel floating in space where many refugees flee to—the titular Xingzhou. It is to this place that the narrator’s grandfather and grandmother meet, and eventually are found by the narrator’s other grandparents, creating an epic tale of war, movement, and SFF pop culture references. The piece is rather tongue-in-cheek, celebrating sci fi by embracing a lot of its ridiculousness while at the same time building up a story that works on its own about this place that changes as the major players trying to find freedom for themselves and their future generations.
Keywords: Space, War, Resistance, Aliens, Uploaded Consciousness, Relationships
Review: This is a weird piece for me, in part because it’s full of references—Easter Eggs for sci fi fans to find and chuckle over. They’re not all that distracting, and for me at least they serve to take some of the edge off what might otherwise have been a rather dark tale. So instead it reads for me a bit more humorously, a but more joyfully, with a bit of a wink and a nudge rather than completely serious. Which is fun and rather charming, and while I’m not sure what I think about all of the non-binary pronouns belonging to wholly non-human characters, I do think there’s a rather nice attitude toward love and intimacy, with some nice polyamory representation and just a rather wild setting built up. And I really do like the way the story slides weirder and weirder, at first telling a story that might be a bit more familiar, with two characters meeting and coming close in their separate diasporas. That the story decides it’s going to go off the rails and really embrace what sci fi can do in terms of pushing boundaries is a choice I appreciate, because for me it opens it up more, telling this history that is still personally, still emotionally resonating, but also more and more over the top. Ancient gods are destroyed, and sentient fungi are installed as political leaders, and things have a way of working out even when they do so in unexpected ways. The story takes elements and keeps adding them, never quite satisfied. The result is definitely a roller coaster experience, waiting for the next twist, the next dive, and it’s fun and strangely heartwarming for me in the end. A great read!
“Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart” by Sam J. Miller (3792 words)
No Spoilers: Solomon is a cabbie in New York in an alternate 1939 where King Kong had been real, and fell to Earth with a sickening crash that is still rumbling inside Solomon. Especially with the news of Germany’s invasion of Poland, where some of his Jewish grandparents still live. And that’s when he comes across her, Ann Darrow, and picks her up in his cab. The night goes from strange to stranger, from heartbreak to hope, though of a dark sort. It’s a story that looks at loss, and change, and the decision of people to push back against human cruelty with something...unexpected.
Keywords: New York, Queer MC, History, Plants, King Kong
Review: Miller’s transformative works have a way of breaking my heart even as they complicate history and media. This one takes the idea of Kong and makes it real, exploring the world left behind in the wake of his passing, his fall. The piece is dominated by a sense of almost numb loss and horror, both Solomon and Ann meeting at a time where their faith in humanity has been pushed and pushed and pushed. And yet in many ways I feel that it’s already been broken. That it broke with Kong, and ever since they have been waging their own wars, Ann deliberately and Solomon without direction. They have been kicked and kicked, Solomon kicked out of his home, living in boarding houses and always in danger because he’s gay. And when he meets Ann he wants something from her, something that he doesn’t even really know how to give voice to. I thought while reading it was maybe a reason to keep going. An answer to the question of how she can keep going when she’s seen something so horrible, been an unwilling part of something so tragic. Only the answer she gives isn’t what he (or I) was expecting. Because she doesn’t tell him that humanity can be changed or saved. Doesn’t tell him that he just has to accept it. Instead she gives him something else entirely—a tool to bring it all down. To bring humanity crashing down as it has destroyed so many, as it was doing to itself. It’s a bit of a bleak read in that sense, but it looks at history and all its horrors and all its struggles and injustices and it asks maybe if there’s something to the idea that maybe humanity should be transplanted at the top of things. It’s a prospect that could be chilling but for the fact that for these characters the warmth is long since gone, and how else can they fight? It’s a defiant, quiet story that still carries a power and impact, and you should definitely check this one out. A fantastic read!
“Wu Ding’s Journey to the West” by Tang Fei, translated by Andy Dudak (9032 words)
No Spoilers: Wu Ding has won money to pursue a project that no one really thinks is worth the time—to build a highway between Beijing and St. Petersburg, to meet East and West. It’s not looked down on because it wouldn’t be useful, though, or even that it would be difficult. Rather, it’s because in this world entropy runs backwards, and if people wait long enough, the highway should just build itself. It’s a kind of Opposite Day story, where Wu Ding, who ages backwards according to this world (young to old) thanks to him being descended from reality immigrants, and Peter Luo, who ages normally (old to young) travel and struggle and face many hardships for this mission that people think is pointless. It’s a strange, quirky, ultimately crushing story about futility and time.
Keywords: Entropy, Backwards, Travel, Generations, Highways
Review: This is a weird take on an alternate reality story, and one that sets Wu Ding as a sort of pioneer, not wanting to just rest on his laurels and let this highway happen but rather to help it come to be by traveling the path it would take to St. Petersburg and then driving a car back along it, thereby almost seeding the road, making it more likely. Only from the start the enterprise is full of problems. He loses his rations, and they lose their map, and they are stymied in St. Petersburg itself because cars haven’t been invented there. It’s a weird but rather cute take on how a universe might function with “reversed entropy,” which I’m not really sure would make people age backwards but really it’s upside-down reality and in that it works for me, setting the stage for the long awaited return of Wu Ding and Peter Luo (or, well, their grandchildren, who have inherited the same quest) to Beijing. And I love how it twists that ending, how it turns this story into something of a meta statement, delivering what is basically the opposite of a satisfying ending, and yet one that gits so well with the subject and the world and the shape of this world that has been revealed. They arrive back to find that their highway, if it will even come to be, is irrelevant, as a new rail line has opened to St. Petersburg instead, and for all their hope that they were doing something that would have profound implications. And while it might seem bleak, I read the ending not as a call for people to do nothing, but rather the opposite, because this is a story of opposites, and it’s rather a call to do _something_, to work because without that work the same disappointment and dissatisfaction will happen, and only through positive action in our universe can positive change happen and chaos been stalled. It’s a neat piece, and a fine read!
“Flowers on My Face” by Geo-Il Bok, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe (6759 words)
No Spoilers: Jimmy is a robot living on Ganymede, in the great shadow of Jupiter, thirty years after a great disaster killed all the humans on the colony and damaged Jimmy, erasing his memory and freezing him until he was revived a month ago. He’s depressed, filled with a longing he can’t quite define, and the story follows him and he moves through the mostly-reconstructed station, where now only robots live and sing and garden, and tries to make sense of his feelings. It’s a story with a heavy melancholy to it for me, defined in large part by loss, but also full of a beautiful hope, and a vibrant world building, and a rush of feeling that could have been heartbreaking but manages to walk the line between despair and shattering joy.
Keywords: Space, Colonies, Robots, Disasters, Flowers, Songs
Review: I really like the situation that the story reveals, where these robots have essentially been abandoned on Ganymede, holding themselves together and getting the colony back in order following the disaster and now finally about back to the way things are...except for the absence of the humans. For Jimmy, it’s something that he doesn’t really remember, because of the damage he’s suffered, and some might think that would make things easier for him. After all, he doesn’t have the same memory of loss, then. Except that he _knows_ that he’s lost, that there is something for him to mourn, and he can’t. He can’t remember what it is that he’s lost, and so unlike the other robots who remember and who are working on memorializing the humans who were their friends, he’s left with only silence in his past. Until he hears a song that awakens the memories inside him, and despite the pain of it, it actually helps to make him less depressed. And I like that the story emphasizes the importance of facing grief and working through it to healing. How it takes that confrontation to find hope for the future. Hope that the humans might return, and the loneliness that the robots feel can be lifted, and in the mean time they can honor the loss they suffered, the lives that were lost in the disaster. And it’s a moving story about the power of memory and song and community and mourning, and it’s beautiful and you should absolutely check it out!
“One in a Million” by Rodrigo Juri (8896 words)
No Spoilers: Luis Javier is the son of a wealthy businessman, and the story takes place over three timelines. One, in the far past, where Luis Javier spends time on a corporate island and meets a girl named Estela; another in the present where he is returning to that island; and a third spanning the two times, featuring the rise of AI and Luis Javier’s involvement with a pro-human resistance movement. The piece opens with a Dickens quote and it unfolds a bit like a sci fi Dickens story of a young man disillusioned by love, ruled by his resentment of one moment in his past, running away until he runs out of anywhere to go other than back to the source. It carries a weight of tragedy, of hurt, and perhaps of avoidable heartache, the knowledge that if this man would just drop his injured pride he could have exactly what he wants.
Keywords: Medicine, AIs, Resistance, Space, Relationships
Review: I like what this story does with the idea of an AI uprising, where humanity (mostly voluntarily) gives up ruling the world because the AI are better at it and can offer more, can turn people into cyborgs, into robots themselves, releasing them from death and allowing them to live forever. But because of this event in Luis Javier’s past, he wants no part of it. Because he cannot trust it, cannot trust the feelings he had with Estela, who he didn’t know was an AI when he fell in love with her. When she fell in love with him. And that’s so much of the tragedy of the story, that they are separated because of something so pointless as jealousy, and anti-AI bigotry. He can’t get over his own sense of betrayal, will not listen to her or to himself. He fights, for spite more than anything, to try and get free from his feelings for her. To try and convince himself that he doesn’t want her, that what he felt for her was fake, because that’s what he feels she must be. Only she’s not, and at least this tragedy has a rather happy ending, romantic and warm, where they find each other again, and like a magic spell they are able to pick up where they left out, as if the entire thing, the AI taking over the world and all, was just a pretense to recreate what they had, and give them another chance at it. It’s a strange experience but one that does carry that feeling of love finally finding realization, finally finding expression after a lifetime of pride getting in the way. And it’s ending is tender and heartfelt and wonderful. A great read!
“The Weapons of Wonderland” by Thoraiya Dyer (6295 words)
No Spoilers: Told in dueling-banjos-style alternating letters, this rather bizarre story features an Earth on the verge of being unlivable for a long time and a comet that just might contain a way to survive...but at something of a price. The piece centers a research mission to the comet Wonderland, where two women, Maribel and Baltasara, are trying to save Earth, and along the way decide to have a child. The two sets of communications are actually addressed to two different people, and it takes a while for it to come clear who it is that’s reading these. They also have very different plans, and the piece is tinged in horror, building a situation that is terrifying, wrenching, and rather heartbreaking, putting an impossible decision in the hands of someone who can’t possibly understand what’s happening.
Keywords: Extinction, Queer MC, CW- Pregnancy, Space, Adaptation, Letters
Review: This is a rather haunting story, building around two mothers pleading with their daughter. And, well, technically pleading with different daughters, but everything isn’t being put in the hands of a young woman who hasn’t seen her mother in a long time but rather in the hands of a ten-year-old girl who is being presented with two very different visions of how to save Earth. And I love how dark this story gets, the choices put to the girl so loaded, so impossible. One of them has already failed, and the other one involves allying with a force that admits that it will kill and eat her. And just thinking about it, about this child dealing with these competing voices for her mothers, is terrifying but fitting because of the terror that comes with the situation on Earth, with the prospect that most life on the planet is going to die. And that there’s really no way to save it as it is. That more than anything is the impact of the story for me, that here we have this girl, no older than Alice, who finds herself tumbling down a rabbit hole so much more twisted and deadly than the old stories. This fall into darkness is full of promises and a tug-of-war where no one wins. Or, at least, where Alice doesn’t. Either she’s doomed one way or another, abandoned by one mother or devoured by another. It’s a no-win situation and it’s the one that humanity has made for her, trading away her future for their own selfish hopes. Now all that remains is the desolation and the hunger, the twisted shapes of Wonderland the comet or the release that sleep might offer. It’s not happy in the slightest, but it’s wickedly imaginative and downright chilling. As a close to the issue, it’s a twist of the knife, a cold that drains out any hope of warmth and leaves hope bleeding on the page. It’s an effective horror and a gutting and heartbreaking read!