Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #158

Art by Tomas Kral
November brings two short stories and three novelettes to Clarkesworld Magazine, most of them science fictional though some with fantasy elements thrown in there as well. There’s actually a strong focus on survival in this issue, on humans outliving (or not) some ecological or man-made disasters on Earth and having to decide what to do next. Having to decide whether to hold on and milk survival of every last drop of joy (and despair) or to embrace that humanity might be doomed, and that maybe it’s not the ultimate loss in the universe.


“Your Future is Pending” by Matthew Kressel (5178 words)

No Spoilers: Martha works for a company that specializes is a virtual space that feels better than real life, that allows people not only a rich fantasy environment but an escape from the increasingly dire circumstances around them. The climate is fucked, with temperatures reaching dangerous levels, and bureaucracy in general has been automated with efficiency (and not actually helping people) prioritized. Martha is struggling, not just with the work she does but with affording to care for her father, who has dementia, and trying to get him the care he needs. Plus a stray dog has showed up near her place, and she hopes maybe to rescue it. It’s a bleak piece, dense and wrenching, where hope isn’t so much in escaping the system but in making sure it’s fully experienced by everyone.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Dogs, Climate Change, Employment, CW- Dementia, CW- Death of an Animal, Family
Review: Well this story certainly presents a vision of the future that doesn’t seem incredibly unlikely. Where climate change is ignored in large part because those with wealth don’t spend much time in the real world, preferring instead the more intense experience online, their bodies cared for by bots and AI. In many ways it looks at what might happen should these technologies be used much as other technologies have been used, with an emphasis on maintaining a status quo that keeps the elites comfortable while everyone else has to deal with worse and worse. It’s not a piece that finds much hope, either, focusing on someone who spurns the virtual reality technology because it’s an escape and makes living in the real world harder. And while I feel that this probably misses a lot of the less awful applications of this kind of technology, I get that it’s probably small enough consolation, especially given that it’s based almost entirely on money. The piece focuses on how hard this is, on the way that Martha’s life seems to be crumbling. She’s frantically trying to stay above water but it seems that all hands are against her, that society as a whole is trying to push her under. So when she meets this dog it’s a moment of hope, that maybe she can save something, that she can find some way through the loneliness and isolation and pain. Only that doesn’t really work out, and the story does a good job of capturing the devastation that causes, the way that it breaks something in Martha. Now, it also sees her essentially trying to orchestrate a whole lot of people dying. And...I’m not sure enough space is given to that, but I do understand that the push behind it is to take away people’s escape, to make more people present in the real world and so more invested in fixing it. Or at least removing some of the people who are hording the wealth and spending it only on their own consumption. Either way, it’s a dark ending that can kinda feel like what she’s doing is meant as a punishment for what was done to the dog, trying to express her anger and despair in a way that will be heard and understood. And it’s certainly a story that’s worth spending some time with. Indeed!

“Antarctica” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (5693 words)

No Spoilers: Chenhua is an artist, a sort of PR tool for an Antarctic research team looking into ways to save the penguins who are threatened because of microorganisms that are destabilizing water ice, further eroding the polar ice and taking away the breeding grounds of the penguins. The project hasn’t met with much success, and it’s already lost two researchers to the dangers of the ice, but they aren’t stopping. And Chenhua, the narrator, is trying to leverage the situation and art in order to show the world the necessity of change, the very real dangers posed by an attack on Earth’s ice. It’s a piece that mixes art with prose, showing the devastating impact humans have on environments but also their abilities to learn, fix, adapt, and inspire.
Keywords: Penguins, Art, Ice, Climate Change, Microorganisms
Review: I like how this story finds a team in Antarctica that includes an artist. Because while the science of the project is the one much more important to the planet and the penguins, the artist is helping to keep that science funded by giving a more personal and emotionally charged avenue for regular people to approach the work. So that the work that Chenhua does might seem a bit...superfluous, as one of the other scientist believes, but it’s rather vital to getting people to care, which is in turn makes them invested and more willing to invest in the work that they’re doing. The piece captures a bit of everything, from the creepiness of the microorganisms that the team is looking to counteract to the fragility of the penguins to harsh conditions of the area. Chenhua and the others aren’t exactly playing it safe. Despite how they seem like stable, science-minded people, they are all engaged in something that is much more desperate than all that, willing to cut corners and ignore safety requirements when it covers their own lives because they know that there is a finite amount of time to act, and they very much don’t want to be late, because the stakes are extinction-level. For all that, it’s a rather fun take on making science more accessible to the average person, and I like how the story captured something that is visual art and renders it here in prose. It’s a fascinating exercise, and the effect is interesting and, I feel, quite effective. And the relationships between the people on the team are great, as is the sense of absence when it comes to those they have lost. It’s a bracing read full of cold and resilience, and it makes for a great story!

“Cloud-Born” by Gregory Feeley (9895 words)

No Spoilers: Asia if a young woman who has grown up in transit to Neptune, part of a large project to establish a permanent human settlement somehow hung in Neptune’s gravity but able to support human life. To now, though, she’s been a child on board the _Centaur_, the huge ship that has been ferrying them. Having never experienced Earth, the line between myth and history has become a bit blurred, and she’s always had a fascination with the creature the ship is named for. And now that they’ve arrived at what will be their new home, she’s filled with questions and confusions, angers and fears about what her future holds, and what it doesn’t.
Keywords: Space, Colonization, Post-Disaster, Centaurs, Myths
Review: The mixing of myth/fantasy with science fiction here is rather great and kinda trippy at times, building a picture of Asia’s life and all the complicated weight that goes with it. For me, though, it also taps into some rather heavy generational feelings, especially ones now, where we’ve entered into a situation where children can’t really expect to live better lives than their parents. Can’t expect to live longer, or easier, or any of that, unless you’re incredibly fortunate. Because there are things that just aren’t getting better, and we can see how hard it will be even to survive. So it gets into a bit of the burden that puts on parents and children, how for children there’s a rather palpable sense of loss and anger. Asia seems to feel that, seems to sense it. That she’s been put into this situation where she can’t escape, where she really has no choice about her future. She needs to build a home, needs to fulfill her parents’ vision for a future for humanity. And it won’t be easy, won’t really be fun. It won’t have the same kind of magic that the old stories have. And a part of her can’t help but mourn that, that she is forever cut off from Earth, from this life that might have been but has been lost. That wouldn’t even be possible now. And it hurts even as she has to find a way forward, even as she has to try to embrace the future as much as possible. Because she has no other real options. It’s not exactly a super happy story, full of a looming and at times arbitrary-seeming violence. A quick shove or sharp impact of stone on flesh. A tumbling, a fall. But maybe through that a better understanding of what this new world will be and a chance to be a part of something new, a fresh chapter in the story of humanity, even if it’s not the one Asia would have chosen to be placed it. A complex and wonderful read!

“Sentinel” by Chang-Gyu Kim, translated by Charles la Shure (8424 words)

No Spoilers: Jeong-chae lives in a shrinking world, one that knows about the end of all things and knows it can’t avoid it and so concentrates on surviving as long as possible. Which hear means maintaining a delicate balance of power within the Sentinels, which help the remaining human population (now under 3000 individuals) safe and relatively happy. Even so, though, every person has to work two jobs, and has to try their hardest to maintain a certain energy output so that they’re not using too much energy, and they’re using what they have very efficiently, in order to stay alive that much longer. In this very utilitarian existence, Jeong-chae is an important person, one of only a few dozen who can maintain the Sentinels. That doesn’t mean he completely believes in the system, though, and he’s carrying some serious wounds as he does his best to be a good citizen. It’s a somewhat clinical story, distanced a bit from emotion both because it’s a “waste” of energy but also because it’s dangerous in a world that is so hinged on survival.
Keywords: Efficiency, Votes, Thermodynamics, Employment, Sacrifice
Review: I really like how the story builds this world as doomed but just not thinking about it. That there really is no aspirational attitude here, but rather a deeply conservative bend because that’s what people are trying to do—conserve energy. And in this utility-obsessed world, the only thing that matters about a person is the numbers, is what their energy ratio is. Especially when it comes time to reduce the population by one. And that’s a situation that really speaks to the place this society is at. I do love that it’s something that Jeong-chae recalls rather early in the story and then again, this sense that the past must have been a better place, an easier place, because something like this would never have happened. With the end so close and so final and unavoidable, people are doing things that they wouldn’t have otherwise, are making sacrifices that they would have balked at because of the implications, because it would have meant opening a door that couldn’t be closed. It’s something Jeong-chae knows quite well, because the door was opened on him, or rather, his disabled wife, who in the first of these population reductions was sent to die so that the rest of the people could live longer. For me it’s showing the kind of horror that is the erosion of hope. That leads people to thinking only about how to get as many people to live for as long as possible, as if that were something good in and of itself, not questioning about the worth of that life, and what good it is if it means the people who survive are murderers. Instead it boils everything down to utility, which is dangerous, and leaves everyone else rather miserable and haunted by what they’ve done and who they’ve sacrificed. And it’s a sharp commentary on the politicians who would open those doors, who would drive people toward that to protect their own comfort. The story offers no real comfort or relief, but at the very least there is a grim justice to the fact that the politician to instigated the rule should fall to it because he does no real work. But it’s a hollow kind of victory, and one that goes along with a continued state of decline. It’s a slow, interesting piece, and a fine read!

“Operation Spring Dawn” by Mo Xiong, translated by Rebecca Kuang (12290 words)

No Spoilers: Little Snow is a Key, of a genetically engineered group of humans who go into extended hibernation in the hopes of awakening when the Great Frost, a mega-ice age, has died back some and initiating technology that will help humanity reclaim the planet. They’re brought back early, though, by a group of AI homunculi who detail that humans had overestimated how long they could survive in stasis. So far, Snow is the only human that can be found still alive. But they’re still a key, so they and their new minders set out to try and find what’s left of humanity and their desperate plan to survive complete disaster. It’s a rather stark story, detailing the many ways that humanity planned to outlive armageddon and finding instead that perhaps humanity’s greatest legacy isn’t their continued survival, but what they were able to give birth to while staring down their own extinction.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, AIs, Hibernation, Ice Ages, Hybrids
Review: Stories detailing the Earth entering into a new ice age aren’t that common anymore, but for me, living in a place where winters have been getting worse and worse, I admit that there is a soft spot for the idea of endless and relentless cold. The enormity of it, the pervasiveness of it, the way that creeps into everything. Especially powerful here is the way that people think that it can be weathered, that it can be survived. That human technology will be able to stand up to something that will last over a hundred thousand years. It’s such a huge thing, that idea, and in the face of that perhaps it’s not surprising that what Little Snow finds on their journey is more and more desolation. That all the great works that humans managed have largely come to naught, because humans simply didn’t have the technology to survive. What things they did dream up have largely broken down, and what hasn’t broken down won’t do humanity any good because humanity is dead and gone. Little Snow might be the very last human, and I like how the story frames that. Not necessarily as a great failing, but rather that Earth is a harsh place, and that humans have simply added the line of species who couldn’t cope with such large ecological shifts. To me it pushes back a bit against the idea that humanity is something that needs to be saved, that humanity is needed for there to be meaning or value in the world. Because what humanity does that seems to be the most valuable thing in the story is create a new kind of person, a hybrid between organic and artificial, who are able to survive the temperatures, and even thrive. At first they’re supposed to be just to bring humanity back. But I like how Snow sees in them not just a tool to revive humanity but the true inheritors of the planet, much better than humans at surviving. And I like that Snow’s reaction to all of this, to having the choice between pursuing reviving humanity or not, they choose to...step aside for a people who don’t need humans to grow and develop. Who really are just being held back by the reverence of humanity. So have shown that they deserve their own chance to build something and see how far they can go. It’s a piece that feels a bit more like “classic” SF but with a fresh take. A fantastic read!


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