Monday, October 14, 2019

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #157

Art by Beeple
It’s a fairly large October issue from Clarkesworld, with four short stories, one novelette, and one novella. As usual, the stories lean more science fiction than fantasy, and deal with people struggling with loss, with grief, with death, and with the prospect of ruination. The stories find characters who have been through Some Shit, and are dealing with that in various ways. Veterans, star ship captains, drug addicts, the narrators and main characters face situations beyond their experience, where they must look into a new frontier, an alien face, and decide what to do next. Some of the reactions are violent, some tender, and all are worth checking out. To the reviews!


“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson (5104 words)

No Spoilers: Benny has been chasing the next hit for a while. Since (it seems) the loss of a woman he was very close to. And though he tries to kick the habit, withdrawal and pain typically lead him back down the same old pathways. Until he fishes something out of the water following a meteor shower, which ends up showing him another way. The piece is a bit disjointed but paints an interesting picture of a man who’s lost and who is trying to cope, if rather messily and definitely not in healthy ways. But health concerns are for the living, and that’s where Benny seems to be, at least until he’s pulled into something he doesn’t completely understand, and ends up in the middle of something big.
Keywords: Aliens, CW- Drug Use/Withdrawal, Grief, CW- Suicide, Chronic Pain
Review: In some ways this feels like the opening to a larger work rather than a complete whole in an of itself. That said, it is an intriguing opening to this world, these characters, and this situation. Benny is not in a good way, and the story does a fair job not of condemning him for being on drugs, for managing his various pains in the ways that he can. He still has a very unhealthy relationship with his pain, though, not wanting to confront but also seduced almost immediately by the specter of a dead woman. Made complicit in the plots of the alien he finds because they can offer him a way out of his pain. He’s not questioning anything despite the red flags and the things that the aliens obviously aren’t telling him. And for my money it seems like he’s going to depend on a woman he just meets, one who he lies to and then attacks, to essentially keep him honest and probably give him the shove he needs away from his grief and towards some chance at healing. Without the larger work, of course, that’s merely speculation, but the piece does seem like it’s designed to bring her into his story, making it a sort of buddy mystery where they have to run around collecting errant aliens for some secret reason while other organizations seek to do likewise. I like that mystery aspect of it, and that these aliens are not portrayed as evil really, though what it is they want is never revealed. They’re creepy but also mostly helpless, and it makes for a neat premise that I’d like to see further developed. As it is, it’s fun and moves quickly, punctuated by some deep trauma and grief, and for those who don’t mind that there’s not much in the way of closure (quite the opposite, in fact), it’s certainly worth checking out.

“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby (4442 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a former marine, and not just a regular one but one of the first of a new kind of marine, enhanced with mech components, designed to fight an invading alien force known as the Skreevs, a burrowing menace that he had a hand in eradicating. Or so he thought. At the end of his life, in constant pain from the modifications to his body and the PTSD and nightmares he endures, the narrator is still in many ways fighting the same old war. Hoping perhaps that he can still be useful even as people want to decommission him. Or maybe he’s seeing something that everyone else has missed... It’s a rather melancholy but stubborn look at survival and not wanting to stop fighting.
Keywords: Veterans, War, Retirement, Cyborgs, Nursing Homes, Family
Review: This isn’t the easiest of pieces to read, centering as it does a man who has done and been through some horrifying things. He’s been a soldier in a war that humanity almost lost. And he watched so many of his fellows fall in combat that to have reached the end of war and life and having to see them die from age or decommissioning is worse. Because it was the war that defined them, that gave them purpose, that made them heroes, and without it they aren’t the same. They’ve been taken out of context and asked to adapt back into a world that they’ve been designed and modified away from. And they can’t, and in some ways the narrator accepts that and just wants other people to accept that. That yes, in many ways he’s broken but he’s broken because he wanted to help his planet defeat an enemy that couldn’t be defeated otherwise. And for me the piece walks the line, giving readers a rather unreliable narrator who seems to understand that unreliability and still insists that he can be of use, that there is something for him to _do_. It leaves the reader in a place where they have to believe what he sees or not. Is this an actual threat that only he can pick up on because only he knows what to look for? Or is this a convenient fantasy that he’s created out of the need to once more have a purpose before he dies. To get out of dying from old age or decommissioning? For me, either way leads to some interesting readings, but perhaps more so is the one that he’s right. That there is a threat. And that the new battle will not only be against the Skreevs, but against the humans not wanting to believe the old veteran. And again there is a small feel like there should be more to explore here, but I kinda like that it cuts off there, when the uncertainty is still high, because that ambiguity is a rich well to dip into. A fine read!

“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee (3740 words)

No Spoilers: Zhou is a Magistrate who is assigned a rather distant and (hopefully) inactive station/transit point (which seem like portals into space, though this one seems to be one-directional, only letting things out and never admitting things back) to oversee in part to wait out an embarrassment from his past. It’s supposed to give him time to do not much of anything in order to get back in good with the court and earn himself a promotion. And the boredom of it chafes him some, but not as much as the sudden action when a being who looks like a woman arrives out of space and complicates his plans and his philosophies. It’s a contemplative piece, strange and showing this very different kind of life trying to reach out and communicate in a way that is at the same time intriguing, hopeful, and a little scary.
Keywords: Space, Genetics, Communication, Senses, First Contact, Family
Review: This is an interesting kind of first contact story because in many ways it’s not a first contact. Lightning has met humans before, it seems, or maybe not exactly. They come partly from humans, from splicing genes from her mother and father, and as a result she can live both in the depths of space, under the eye of God, or among humans. And I like how the style of the piece takes older kinds of narratives, with magistrates and large bureaucracies, and puts them into space, where the main character is this kind of bumbling man who was really only supposed to be carrying out a more ceremonial posting, away from real responsibilities. He’s completely outmatched by the situation but refuses to admit it, full instead of his own importance and feeling like he can handle anything. And there’s a nice energy that comes from the almost charming way that he is flustered this entire time, trying his best to pretend that he knows what’s going on when he really doesn’t know how to react. For all that he was supposedly trained for this it’s obvious that his posting for nepotistic reasons was A Mistake and it’s really showing now, when he’s the one sitting there with this monumental change staring him in the face, literally asking him to respond and him unable to actually stand up and do anything. He shrinks, and in that shrinking there’s a feeling I get that he’s let this get beyond his, and the empire’s, control. And it’s certainly an entertaining process getting there, and there is no way that he’s not getting fired or worse, which seems to be wholly earned at this point. An enjoyable read!

“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn & Justin Howe (4733 words)

No Spoilers: In a future where the living must pay mortality taxes in order to avoid euthanasia, the narrator of this piece has fallen behind and agrees to be taken to a facility to spend the remaining day of her life. The piece focuses on the almost numb feeling she has, seeing the end approach. The uncertainty and doubt and restlessness, the anxiety and dread, and shows where she takes it all, and what she ends up deciding to do. It’s a quiet piece, very different from a lot of stories that deal with similar themes, and it’s certainly a careful story that looks at dignity, at death and life, and doesn’t really offer up any easy answers.
Keywords: CW- Euthanasia, Taxes, Poverty, Dignity
Review: Okay for me stories about people condemned to die normally follow a certain path. One where the idea of dignity in these kinds of deaths are challenged, denied, and shown to be a kind of lie. And I feel that this story moves some in that direction, the title and names of all of these institutions definitely a bit over the top and dystopian. But it’s also a rather quiet story, one that doesn’t really feature the narrator rejecting the system. Indeed, she embraces it more than people expect, seeing in shallow luxury of the facility not an attempt to cow people into accepting death but an attempt by a society to comfort itself by claiming that the act of killing someone can be necessary or merciful (or even benevolent). The fact for me is that the narrator does find dignity in death. She does come to terms with what is happening and decides to meet the end on her terms, not by flinging herself violently against what certainly is an injustice, but by meeting it with a reserve and awareness. By seeing that the facility isn’t really about her at all. Not about some secret conspiracy to harvest organs. Not about her own comfort or happiness at the end. It’s a kind of national hand washing. A way of framing an incredibly unjust and cruel system of killing the poor so that the people who are wealthy see it as a sort of reward. Look at those poor people, given anything they want for a whole day. Certainly that’s enough so that they’ll be ready to die. To be murdered. But the people there can’t enjoy it, and if they try to explain that they would be seen as ungrateful and deserving to be killed anyway. There is no win, basically, except to refuse to play that game, and to confront as many people as possible with the fact that you see through the lie to the truth below—that this is wrong and that people deserve dignity in life, not death. A wonderful read!

“Song Xiuyun” by A Que, translated by Emily Jin (10199 words)

No Spoilers: Wu Huang is trying to pay off the loans from her car by using the car’s remote driving capability to be a kind of upscale taxi. After a slow night she picks up a mother and son from a train station and bargains a rate. On the way, though, the mother, Song Xiuyun, tells her a long and rather strange story about having gone into Beijing to look in on her son, Li Chuan, who she heard as sick, and who works for a very prominent robotics corporation. The story and the ride lead passengers and driver alike through a rather lonely, sad landscape dominated by distance, hope, and fading health. It’s a wrenching read, about the ways people try to protect the ones they care about, and the ways sometimes lies seem kinder than reality.
Keywords: Robots, Family, Queer Characters, Cars, Projection
Review: This is a rather heartbreaking story for me, though I think the story does a good job of leaving things just ambiguous enough that the ending isn’t entirely certain. But it’s a story about family, and about acceptance. About a son who doesn’t want to burden his mother with extra worry, and also doesn’t want to face her brand of scrutiny. Who wants to offer her a comfort, but in order to do so must hide most things about himself. And really it speaks to so much about being queer in a place where that’s not okay. For Li Chuan, sick with something I hope isn’t AIDS (and which is never really called that, though imo the implication hangs rather palpably because of the way he is described and because if it’s the case then of course he’d want that kept from his mother, as well), it seems that he just wants to give his mother some peace. Some happiness in her older age. The tragedy here comes from the way that has to happen, from the way that she does accept that kind of ignorant happiness even with all the clues in front of her. Now, it’s also possible that he’s not dead. That he does get better. But even with that I can’t see much of a happy ending if he goes with her back “home” to the place where he still can’t be himself. And so whatever is happening, the true version of himself is being lost and the false version is being embraced. The only option that allows for him to live authentically would be for him to have been cured and still sent a false version of himself “home” so that he could live in Beijing as himself without his mother requiring him to hide. Whatever the case, though, it’s a piece where these people can’t quite reach each other, where Li Chuan can’t be what his mother wants and so is stuck chasing after a way to make her happy anyway. It’s wrenching and difficult but a rather beautiful piece that I very much recommend checking out!

“How Alike Are We” by Bo-Young Kim, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar (25648 words)

No Spoilers: Well the last fiction piece of the issue is also by far the longest, a novella that follows a small ship as they seek to offer aid to an ailing group stranded on Titan. Or, at least, the captain, Lee Jin Seo, is trying to offer aid in the form of a supply drop. Most of the rest of the crew, though, are not so keen, and to further complicate matters, the ship’s AI has been downloaded into a human body and doesn’t remember why. The piece moves from the AI’s point of view, exploring their new found singular perspective as they deal with the crew’s hostility, their own missing memories, and something else that they can’t quite figure out. Something they can’t see. It’s a tense piece, but one that does a great job of showing how powerful many of the invisible forces are in human culture, and I don’t mean gravity or anything so scientific.
Keywords: Space, AI, Command, Sexism, CW- Rape
Review: I really like how this story plays out over its length, how it builds up the narrator as a person with this vital thing...missing. Because I think for me the initial thought is that it was going to be something physical. Something that prompted them to act because there was a threat and it’s like an alien or some sort of tech or... and then to learn otherwise for me was a wonderful move, powerful and shattering because oh shit, yeah, fuck. Because it’s not like readers will be completely ignorant of the sexist bend of a lot of the things happening in the piece. But because the narrator acts from a place where it’s just not a thing, a bit of that radiates out of and I feel makes it a bit easier to feel that ignorance. Because they’re an AI and all of what they are observing is supposed to be objective, is supposed to be true. The lack seems like it must be caused by something nefarious, and turns out it is! Just...not in the way I had assumed. Because this is some really fucked up shit, this one thing that some asshole thought was a good idea to change that has had such massive ripples. That has robbed the narrator of their ability to effectively manage the mission and the crew because they were missing this aspect of human interactions. Like operating as if racism didn’t exist and then setting up a situation where there was a black captain and a nearly all-white crew. For the AI who has been limited, the reactions of everyone don’t make sense. They’re wildly illogical and, beyond that, go against all of their programming. The shock that they feel when the captain reveals what’s happened was a masterful moment, because there finally they confront what it is that they’ve been missing all along. Why everyone has been out of sorts and why some of the crew have been so fucking evil. Because they are the kinds of men who cannot stand a woman being in control. Who are so biased that no matter what happens events and actions get folded to support their feeling of superiority. It’s terrifying but so good here. It’s not the fastest moving of stories, but it really hits when it does, and there’s a visceral tension that can’t be resolved until the narrator figures out what they haven’t been seeing. A fantastic way to close out the issue!


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