Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #155

Art by Roman Kuteynikov
It’s another full issue from Clarkesworld, with six stories (four short stories and two translated novelettes) that cover a wide range of pasts, presents, futures, and never-wases. The stories are mostly science fictional, though there’s one fantasy and one alt-history, and they examine hope and progress, what makes a person human or makes them...different. It features naturalized aliens, uploaded consciousnesses, artificial wombs, and colonies on Neptune. And through it all it remains fairly philosophical, wrenchingly visceral, and intimately emotional. There are spills and chills, laughs and more than one heartwarming moment, so let’s cut the chitchat short and get to the reviews!


“Entangled” by Beston Barnett (4516 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is an alien naturalized on Earth through a somewhat complex combination of quantum mechanics and technology, able to grow inside of a Xuit that allows them to experience Earth as a human. They have parents, and a job, and all the hallmarks of life on Earth, including a keen loneliness that they’re trying to treat with dating. Asexual and an alien, dating is a loaded thing, but it’s also a way that they’re able to explore their humanity as well as their deeper, messier identity as a member of a different species. The piece is charming, the voice full of cautious yearning, and really it’s a heartwarming and beautiful piece.
Keywords: Asexual MC, Non-binary MC, Queer MC, Aliens, Dating, Tourism
Review: I really love the way the story layers meaning, the way that it splits between the air and ground sections, designed to mirror the way that the narrator’s species uses language to create a simultaneous experience where the two are in conflict in some ways and there is added meaning to be found in the distance between the truths they reveal. It’s further fascinating because the narrator, despite being of the species that use this language, is still a native of Earth, grew up speaking English, and in many ways is human. Except that they aren’t as well. They are in contradiction, existing in that distance between ground and air, having to try and navigate without the wings they were born physically with but will always lack as an embodied human. The situation creates this intensely moving picture of isolation and doubt, where the narrator must always wonder about what might have been, and how they are different, and if any part of them is part of their alien biology or human socialization. They are between so many things, and for all that it hurts them, that it makes them want so much for acceptance and belonging, it also suits them, also gives them this liminal space to explore and inhabit. Because they can be both, can be human and alien, body and socialization, and their full self does exist where those things intersect and where they diverge. On top of that, the piece is just fun, romantic, charming, and beautiful. I love the stories the narrator tells about their exploits in dating, about the way they are singular but are also part of a larger culture. How they are trapped sometimes not by their differences but by their doubts and fears, and how sometimes those can be eased, and they can make wonderful connections with other people. A fantastic story!

"Onyx Woods and the Grains of Deception” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (5448 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a part of a project to clear away the forests of a kingdom to make way for farmlands to grow grain. To fulfill the vision of the contempoists who are trying to build the kingdom into a power. But the narrator is only a lumberjack, one of the few women working the job, who just might have a bit of an ulterior motive when it comes to felling trees. Or who might find one amid the sap and lumber that supposedly has magical properties. The piece is nice strange, mostly mundane in that it focuses on the business of being a lumberjack for a good while. But in that it also builds up a compelling world and brings the narrator to a place where they might finally be ready to take some action.
Keywords: Trees. Resources, Lumberjacks, Crystals, Exploitation
Review: I like the way the story slowly builds, finding in the narrator someone who has lost a lot of her reason to do much of anything. In some ways I feel that she’s in a place where it seems the battle is already lost. Her nation, which she wants to be proud of, want to love, has fallen into this trap. Where it’s trying to be something different, something new and, in her opinion, without the heart that it once had. In fact, it’s tearing that heart out so that it can replace it with something cheaper, something that will wear out, will need to be replaced again and again, each time at a steeper cost. Which is sadly familiar, because that’s how so much of the world operates, with the only real thing that’s important is growth and expansion. There’s no thought to what’s sustainable or what’s best for people, just a guiding principle of exploitation and a drive toward it. The narrator sees it happening, is even participating in it in the hopes of maybe ending up ahead, but the more she does the more she seems to realize that there will be no “ahead” in this, that it will always being a grinding wheel and any small stumble might mean getting caught by it. And I like that the focus then is on first stopping the loss going on, the one she was helping happen. Because once the forests are gone there will be nothing left to save. And the contempoists will have won a huge victory, convincing everyone that grain is somehow superior to magic trees that can store memories, that hold the heritage of the nation. It’s a piece that finds the narrator waking up to the fact that she has to act, and act boldly, in the face of the destruction going on around her, because if it goes on too far it will only become locked in a terrible cycle. So it’s definitely a piece to spend some time with, and a fine read!

“Your Face” by Rachel Swirsky (1307 words)

No Spoilers: This story unfolds as a conversation between Abigail and her mother. Abigail, who had a kind of brain scan that uploaded some of her consciousness into a program before she died. Or might have. The exact nature of the scan, and the person who is speaking in the story, becomes clearer as the piece progresses, leading the story into some emotionally staggering territory. It’s a piece that deals very closely with lose, and with shock, and with the desire to go back and tell someone something before it’s too late. It’s a short but difficult and gutting story that you might want to try and guard your feels from, not that it will do much good.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousness, CW- Car Accidents, Queer MC, Relationships, Family
Review: This is a gut punch of a read, opening at first with a single line of tragedy, that this mother is visiting a recreation of her dead daughter. Which already is rather loaded, because it’s not entirely certain why the mother is visiting, other than maybe to say goodbye. But the daughter, Abigail, isn’t exactly having a good day. Or at least, she wasn’t when she was scanned last time. It’s too hot, and she’s annoyed, and she’s had an argument with her wife. A stupid argument that still has managed to hurt them. And so with her mom there she’s just sort of griping about it all. Venting. which seems almost petty given the circumstances, but it still feels real, that this recreation doesn’t really understand fully what’s happened. She knows intellectually what this must mean, but at the same time she acts as if she was alive, tired and worn down and just wanting to go home. But she can’t. And the piece deepens the tragedy and twists the knife when it’s revealed the full extent of what happened, and why the mother is really there, trying to fulfill a dying wish. The emotional artillery the story uses is heavy, treating with the way people fear and try to prepare for death and the way that it doesn’t really help, that even with the full extent of technology, there’s no way to really communicate to someone who is gone. No way of knowing if they understand. It’s too messy, too sudden, and too fucking much to deal with. The truth fails to pass through this barrier, whether because this version of Abigail cannot process what she’s being told or is consciously refusing to. Either way, for all the sadness and tragedy that runs throughout the piece, I feel there’s something else, as well. Something that cuts through the circumstances that make this mother so sad about how it played out. That remind her that even if their last moments were full of doubt and fear and guilt, what really defined the relationship between Abigail and Robin was love, and that their love can’t be erased by even the trauma of this accident or their deaths. That if there is something more than this life, the two have already made up. Which is bittersweet, at least, and makes for a story you should definitely check out!

“The Yorkshire Mammoth” by Harry Turtledove (7390 words)

No Spoilers: Doc Holley is a vet in a Yorkshire where mammoths still roam, and a few are kept by farmers for their fertilizer and their work. The story is told as a spoken narrative, looking back on a time in the late 1930s or early 1940s when he was called out to a farm to help a mammoth with a broken tusk. It’s a rather cute story, not exactly tackling any huge philosophical questions but rather focusing on the place, on the people, and on a mammoth named Old Bill. Which makes for a rather charming experience.
Keywords: Mammoths, Dentistry, Ice, Alt History, Veterinarians
Review: The story here is slightly difficult for me to place in time, perhaps because the history of the world might be a little...off, what with mammoths being around. But it takes place in Yorkshire, where Doc Holley and his completely unreliable deathtrap auto often go about the countryside seeing to veterinary dilemmas. And really there’s a lot of the story that just seems to want to capture this feeling of the place and time, coming from a voice laced with nostalgia who wants to bring a bit of the country charm to the more modern listeners. And it does a good job of capturing the sound of the locals, the personalities, the scope of their conflicts. This is a time and place where most of the people would have known war. Where many of the characters served, though it’s not really talked about. There’s a sense for me that this story, taking place when it does, is a more conscious effort by the narrator to find in the past something idyllic, something pure. He speaks of the cold of the place, of the glacial freeze, and how it seems to capture something. How perhaps it has captured in this story a moment in time that some might consider more innocent, where the biggest drama was a mammoth that lost a tusk, and a bunch of people who came together to help out, not worried about money but rather about caring for a being in distress. And it’s fun for that, charming and sweet with a light humor and warmth that helps to cut through the cold of the setting. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

“In This Moment, We Are Happy” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Rebecca Kuang (12725 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a documentary covering the present and future of pregnancy, the story follows a number of different people on the cutting edge of technology and scientific progress. The piece looks skeptically at the traditional and conservative models of what pregnancy can and should look like, moving further and further into a future that might well need humanity to think about childbirth differently in order to avoid not only the same old abuses and atrocities, but extinction itself. It’s emotionally dense and ethically complex while imagining parents of very different sorts trying to bring life into the world.
Keywords: CW- Pregnancy, Surrogacy, Queer Characters, Documentaries, Family
Review: This is not an easy read, framed as it is and layered so that the narrative sort of spirals out from the center, beginning in the present (though the past according to the filmmakers) and moving into the future (or the present, similarly) and looking at the technology of pregnancy and birth. The way that people now have the ability to use surrogates to carry fetuses made from eggs and sperm of other people. And from that very present tech, the story looks at what might follow. The ability to create a person using only the genetic material from two women. The ability for a man to carry a fetus to term. The ability to do much more intensive genetic manipulation in order to try and guide human evolution in order to take a proactive approach to climate change and political insularity. And all while very much dealing with people. With mothers and fathers to be who want to have children. Who want to engage what the story is careful to call again and again a rather selfish act. Because having children cannot necessarily be seen as a gift to the child. It’s something unasked for, that parents do without the consent of the life they bring into the world (which, yes, would be impossible, but still). The story acknowledges that and so asks instead what are our responsibilities to children and to ourselves. If we recognize that choosing to have children is somewhat selfish, then what does that free us to consider, and how does that change how we think of giving birth, not a moral victory but something more complicated. And it does start to look at what might be beyond that somewhat selfish impulse. How this technology can be adapted not just to allow people who might not otherwise have children, but to maybe change the way that people look at reproduction and, though that, gender roles and attitudes and so much else. The story ends is a vastly different place than it begins technologically, but it’s still focused on feelings, on potential, and on how humanity continues beyond the limitations of convention and toward something that might be amazing and change things for the better. A wonderful read!

“The Second Nanny” by Djuna, translated by Sophie Bowman (16046 words)

No Spoilers: Brook is a member of a colony of mostly-humans living on the moons of Neptune under the care of Neptune’s AI Mother. They’re all children in the colony after the death of their nanny two years ago, and have grown up in relative peace after the conclusion of a devastating war that wiped out most of Earth and Venus that was orchestrated by bloodthirsty Father AIs. Seorin is an older woman who has come to the colony on a mission, armed with information and a desire only to try and protect the creation of her close friend, the nanny who is now dead. The piece is filled with AI and space, and it moves a bit slow at first and then relentlessly as things Go Wrong in big ways. It’s thrilling and violent but also captures a very human drive to continue on in some way, if not completely free than at least as close as possible to it.
Keywords: AI, Colonies, War, Children, Family
Review: This is a wonderfully imagined story, with a lingering war finding a new battleground in this next generation of humanity. At least that’s what Brook and the rest of the colony seem to represent, a hope for humanity to survive outside the solar system, to spread and to live and to be free of the limited space that the rest of humanity is stuck in. To be free as well from the destructive legacy of the Fathers, able to go out without the same risk of self-annihilation. If, that is, they are snuffed out by that old conflict, as Father returns and Mother proves that she’s not all that maternal, seeing the colony as an asset but not an irreplaceable one. And what I love about it is that Seorin represents this urge to really give this fledgling people a chance to escape the mistakes of the past. To be able to determine their own futures free even from the benign benevolence of the Mothers. To not have to be servants, good only in case the robots break down, but partners moving into a new world together. Seorin represents the only person willing to give them that chance, even if it means her own death. Because it’s something that she had committed to herself, once. And it’s something that the person she cared most about had given herself for. So it all comes down to Seorin counting on Father’s aggression and rage to give her the chance to save humanity’s children. It’s a vividly told and intricate piece, and I love the world building and the characters, from Brook’s practical determination to Seorin’s yearning hope and sorrow. It’s a piece that might have something of a learning curve, but getting into it reveals a rich tapestry of history and hurts, calculations and strategies, all falling away in the face of a little energy and gravity. It’s bold, fun, and one hell of a read. A great way to close out the issue!


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