|Art by Beeple
September brings just five new stories to Clarkesworld Magazine, but given that none of them are under 6800 words, it’s not exactly a light issue. It’s not light in terms of themes, either, with a lean toward works that explore abuse and damage, with people struggling to find meaning and connection in environments and situations that have been built on misconceptions, corruption, and exploitation. The result is the issue has its share of grim moments, but I feel out of that springs a lot of hope, with characters finding ways to trust and believe in themselves and others, working for a future that can be better for everyone. Or, at least, for the people who are trying to make things better for everyone. And there’s a lot to cover, so I’ll get right to the reviews!
“Dave’s Head” by Suzanne Palmer (8096 words)
No Spoilers: Cassie is a woman working as a porter at an airport and living with her uncle, who needs care because of his progressing dementia. They also live with Dave, a giant animatronic dinosaur that Uncle Marty, an engineer/mechanic, salvaged but has never managed to fully fix. The story follows the three of them out on a road trip across a shattered landscape, drawn into a plot that has been stalking them for some time. It’s a piece that has its light moments (with elements of a buddy comedy) while unfolding in a deeply broken world, one that Cassie’s mother was trying to fix, but got killed for first. It’s fun and emotionally rich, and quite rewarding.
Keywords: Dinosaurs, Post-Disaster, Family, CW- Memory Loss/Dementia, Animatronics
Review: As a road trip story, this one works well enough, with a rather eclectic crew (one rather punk-ish woman, one old man with dementia, and one dinosaur head) and a definite sense of travel and adventure. It mixes a mood that wants to be carefree, though, with a situation that’s anything but. The world here is just so badly damaged, where traveling isn’t what it was—walled cities and unregulated food make for a rather dicey set of circumstances. Add in huge income inequality and it seems like this roadtrip is almost captured out of time, a relic just like the car they’re riding in, just like Dave and Marty. Only Cassie herself is young here, but her world is a mixture of that world that’s been lost and the new reality where she has to take every care, where she has to be constantly aware of the dangers around her. And the story for me finds all of the characters having to deal witih the world not being what it was. Having to confront the ways that they’ve been reaching back, living in the hope that they can go back to something that is gone. For Dave, he wants to reconnect with what he was. To being a dinosaur in a park that is still alive. But it’s all dead, and his desire for a return causes him to betray those who actually care about him. For Marty, there’s not quite the same need to confront the present, in part because he has no control over that. But it does bring him to a place where he has a new project, a new hope, and where he has actually followed through on something when his projects have a tendency to pile around him. And Cassie does the most of all, seeing that as a young person she’s still responsible for the past. To help those who have been victims of the powerful, and to thwart the ambitions of those wh profit off the end of the world.it might be easy for her either to abandon that past, to hate it for letting her down and leading her to this place, this hell, or to try and sell it to make her own situation better. But she does neither. instead resolving to try and survive to see a world that might yet get better. Not to the way it was, but maybe to something new and awesome. It’s a fun piece that still packs an emotional punch, and I love the way it maintains its humor and hope even in the bleak setting. A wonderful read!
“Amorville” by and translated be Bella Han (9164 words)
No Spoilers: Eva works as a marketing writer for a company making virtual pets, among other things. She’s also very much into experiencing virtual movies in her immersive pod, and might just be falling in love with a virtual actor. One who seems to exist only on her own machine. The piece follows Eva through a world where humans are in danger of being phased out of many things, AI starting to move into work they were always assumed to be too artificial for. But where is the line between real and artificial in a world where immersion is possible? When a human cannot tell the difference, then is the difference meaningful? It’s a rather slow and haunting story about human connections, or the lack of them, and sorrow and joy in the face of human tech advances.
Keywords: Employment, AI, Virtual Reality, Dating, Love
Review: I do like the way this story looks at the ways that modern AIs are being used to in some ways supplant human labor that was always thought of as not able to be automated. In some ways, it’s pointing out that automation has reversed a lot in many ways, so that humans are still doing so much intensive manual labor because human problem solving and dexterity are required, while more creative things are being viewed as a new frontier when it comes to AI moving in. So that “assistants” like the one that Eva uses are able to learn from humans and then take over and many can’t tell the difference, or don’t care enough about the difference. It’s something that is actually terrifying, because it opens up a whole lot of space for companies to cut out creative positions and fill them with AI who are ultimately under the control of the company to their very cores. And I like how the story builds to that, showing how virtual space offers people an escape from the crushing nature of their day jobs. Eva struggles with how her job has been streamlined and automated, so she escapes into her pod. Only that same corruption, that same drive to exploit, is waiting for her there as well, and it shows just how much companies can leverage data to learn preferences down to the individual, so that marketing can be personalized, so that the experience can be tailor to be addictive, to be dangerous in a way that most people wouldn’t think about. I think the piece captures Eva’s dissatisfaction so well, her desperation for a real connection. And then to have that hope broken is shattering, and the story sticks its landing with a powerful and rather devastating ending. A great read!
“To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things” by M. L. Clark (14868 words)
No Spoilers: Greysl is the security chief of a Partnership settlement on Drasti Prime, a world that has drawn representative colonies from other races, as well. Including the most recent one, the last of a dying race of space worms, who brought his last egg to the planet in the hopes that it would thrive. When the worm dies, though, and his egg is destroyed, it opens up a mystery that Greysl feels compelled to solve. At the same time, they’ve got plenty of issues of their own, mostly of the relationship sort with their two mates. The piece is vividly and widely imagined, with some serious world building and wonderful character work. In a story that is mostly sci-fi mystery, it centers the importance of communication, and never taking relationships for granted.
Keywords: Aliens, Cooperation, Murder, Mysteries, Transformations, Queer MC, Poly Relationship
Review: The layered way the story tackles relationships is pretty amazing. I mean, aside from Grey being part of something called the Partnership, and having a complex personal relationship with two mates—one where they’re all in counseling—the story also explores how people interact and maintain relationships at a larger level. And it’s telling that so much of the conflict of the piece springs out of speaking and framing things a bit too quickly and carelessly. Grey has to come to terms with the way that they have a tendency of interpreting events without waiting for context and without seeking explanations. They're judging, and it often puts them in a situation where they say the wrong thing. It’s a bit of a running gag, after all, as they kind of offend most people they talk to, unintentionally hitting them in their vulnerable spots. Something that it turns out they’ve been doing even more than they realized, and especially with people who they assumed they couldn’t hurt. People with whom their relationship was supposed to be solid. But the piece shows how no relationship can be taken for granted, especially when they rest on things that you didn’t personally interrogate or negotiate. The largest of these, and the crux of the mystery, involves the race who oversees the planet, who seem robotic and unfeeling and whose relationship to the people on the planet seems well established. But the reason the word seems appears there so often is that no one bothered to really follow up on things. It was assumed that everything was working fine, that everyone was happy, and it turns out that it’s not exactly the case. And only when they sit down and start to really talk, Grey and the Partnership meeting these people at least halfway, that they can understand each other better. The solution they reach is not perfect, but it leaves room for hope and for healing, and for growth, the relationships all able to deepen and strengthen because they are examined and honestly approached. It’s a lovely story, full of miscommunication and blunders, but resolving into something beautiful. Definitely go check it out!
“Lapis” by Sara Saab (7284 words)
No Spoilers: Szanna has come to Florid Park under mostly-false pretenses, saying that she wants to map it into the digital realspace (contrasting with the physical bonespace). She’s looking for someone among the pestilents, immortals who have...become a certain kind of ill that leaves them no longer in complete control of themselves. It’s a mission she’s been on for a long time, a hope to maybe reach someone from her past, someone who means a lot to her. It’s not allowed, though, and she must maintain her illusion of purpose while trying to maneuver herself into place. The piece is wrenching and beautiful, exploring Szanna’s past, her fears, and her regrets, which push her into playing a very dangerous game, but one where winning could mean saving someone whose loss is like an open wound that can’t heal.
Keywords: Games, Immortality, Infection, Maps
Review: This story builds a rather intricate and mildly broken vision of the future, one where immortality is possible but also a kind of gamble. Or at least it was for many before an Upgrade made it safer. For the people from before then, though, it seems a game, with death (or maybe even worse than death) waiting for those who “lose.” For Szanna, immortality doesn’t seem to have been something she was ever drawn to. But it was something her friend, Nouri, wanted and pursued. And he was what she wanted, the boy who drew her on, who captured her heart. And now that they’ve both grown up and Nouri is a pestilent, one of the immortals who “lost” the game, she’s looking for a way to get him another turn. A new game. A do-over. Or that’s how it feels to me, that she’s been working on a game to play with him that might somehow fix what’s happened. That might right his mind and give him back control. It’s not exactly something that’s...legal to do, though, and so she has to act covertly. The piece builds beautifully with glimpses at their childhood and the life she’s lived since, always circling back to this boy, this man, who has slipped beyond her grasp. Only she’s nto willing to give up, and so she plays on, mortal and with a limited amount of time but still wanting to spend a lot of it on this mission, on doing something that has no guarantee of success. It, too, is a game, and one that she’s trying desperately to win because she is in love, tethered by that bond to a man she wants, she needs to bring back from where he’s been lost. It’s tender and yearning, and while there are some elements of the world building that aren’t fully explained, I felt I understood what was going on and I definitely could feel the characters’ motivations for doing what they did. It’s a gorgeously rendered story with a strong emotional pull, a kind of tainted nostalgia, and a drive to reach out in a very vulnerable way with no certainty that it pay off. But still there’s the need to try, the game to play. A lovely read!
“Malinche” by Gabriela Santiago (6888 words)
No Spoilers: Retelling a very different European invasion of Central America, this story centers a woman who has lost her name when she was sold into slavery to cover her father’s debts. Her hopes smashed, she relies largely on her mechanical and technical skills in a setting infused with very early electricity and technology. It’s not enough to really stop the Europeans, though, especially when the narrator, who becomes known as Marina, helps them by converting mechanical figures designed to help with harvests into nearly unstoppable soldiers. Her reasons are her own, though, and she has her own plans and priorities as she carves a path of blood through the land she once thought of as her home. It’s a story dripping in violence but also resolve, to use technology to build something stronger than greed.
Keywords: Technology, Electricity, Invasion, Disease, CW- Slavery, Alternate History
Review: The take on history is interesting and builds nicely, not obvious at first but more and more recognizable as the story progresses. The changes, that the world has a kind of simple electricity, something that few understand and few can afford. But the narrator gets a taste of learning before she is sold, and from there begins to put her skills and intellect to use trying to steer toward a future where she is slave no longer, where her people won’t need slaves, and where they’ll be able to do more than protect themselves from the aggression of foreign aliens. The piece follows this woman as she works with this invading force, showing her relish in the ways that she can strike back against the injustices done to her. More than that, though, her eyes seem always glued to a point in the more distant future when she has built something that can last, where she can embrace the hope and possibility (and yes, power) of technology to not just keep her people safe but to help them prosper. Of course, it’s not a story without a heavy violence, and the narrator doesn’t shrink from that. She makes decisions that kill a great many, and she sides with an invading power, all the while calculating how to get what she really wants. Which might not be a happily ever after for everyone. But it’s a revenge story that at least doesn’t stop at revenge, that acknowledges her hunger for it but also shows that she has larger plans. And perhaps the story asks a bit how this violent imagining of history is worse than what really happened, when what really happened was so massive and terrible. Perhaps it pushes readers to confront that even as violent as this story is, it’s probably mild compared to history and the numbers of the dead from the European invasion of Central America. After all, there are romanticized portrayals of those times, that seem to relish in the violence and grit of the times, and historical accuracy is a poor justification for reinforcing dominant narratives of conquest and colonization. Here those things are subverted, turned back, and a voice given to someone who has likely never been heard before. Which makes for an often difficult but ultimately rewarding read about history ad violence and technology. A great story to spend some time with!