Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #299 [part 2]

Art by Andis Reinbergs
The science fantasy goodness continues as I finish up my look at the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which hits a bit above its weight with over 20,000 words of fiction. The stories deal with unfairness in very meaningful ways, finding characters who want to break free of systems that have them trapped. That are hungry for their death and suffering. That are punishing them for something they don’t understand. The pieces are visceral and bloody at times, but through all that they also hold to hope, that even the more powerful of systems can be dismantled, though that doesn’t mean it will be easy. To the reviews!


“Truth as a Prize” by R.Z. Held (6490 words)

No Spoilers: Naomi is a ghost trapped in a game, a prisoner to a sort of malicious and hungry riddle that claimed her and now won’t let her go. She lives on, forced to become a part of the game, to help trap others in this rank limbo. She holds onto one thing and one thing only now--the hope that she can help someone else beat the game and escape, and through that spread the truth about what it is so that non one will ever again get stuck inside. And the latest contestant seems a promising candidate to win, if she can avoid the pitfalls, ask the right questions, and try to get around the fact that the game loves to cheat. It’s a tense and wrenching read full of pain and people fighting against something hungry and corrupt. It shows the pain that hope brings, but also the power, the resilience, and the possibility for victory even against the steepest odds.
Keywords: Games, Family, Bargains, Truths, Lies, Blood
Review: I like how the story sets up the game, as having rules that make it seem like things must be fair, but revealing that the rules don’t really cover everything, and that part of the Game is that it doesn’t explain the rules, and punishes those who act without understanding things. There is no rule, after all, that someone can’t be brought back to life, but it’s also not within the power of the game to grant, and so even if a person “wins” the game in that way, they still lose. Still die. Still become a ghost. And it’s so unfair, really, and it might be bad of me to like that part of the story, but it speaks so truly, that most Games like this are hungry for pain, are designed to not really allow anyone to win, and especially not to let anyone reveal the truth behind everything. Because without the appearance of fairness, there can be no further exploitation. The Game would have to end. And that’s exactly what Naomi wants, though through the story she starts to want more than that. Starts to hope for more, not less, because she’s reminded that it might be possible, that it must be possible. To not only beat the game but destroy it, and free all the ghosts trapped within. I have to admit I’m not super sure where the science comes into this one, but that’s not a huge mark against it. It’s full fantasy to me, full of magic and a resilience that can withstand almost anything. That can keep going even when it hurts, even when it seems like there’s no chance of victory. Because even though it seems the Game always wins, there are things that Naomi and the new contestant do that surprise it, and together they are able to do something that no one has been able to do before. It’s doesn’t quite see through their plans and their hopes, but it keeps the embers of their desires, and their justice, burning enough that maybe it will still catch fire and burn down the system that allows the Game to continue. It’s a striking piece, the Game claustrophobic, toxic, and gloating, and the characters defiant in the face of that, unwilling to give up on their goals. A great read!

“Where the World Ends Without Us” by Jason Sanford (16540 words)

No Spoilers: This story dips back into the world where blood grains, nano AI programmed to protect the environment at any costs, control a humanity divided between anchors, tools of the grains who can become superpowered to deal with threats, and day-fellows, nomadic caravan humans who must constantly move to avoid overtaxing nature. It’s a static system enforced by the grains’ ability to focus violence through the anchors. But one of those anchors, a young woman named Alexnya, has just been found guilty. Of what, exactly, is uncertain. But the grains are angry, and when the grains are angry, they are rarely fair. Why they’re angry, at least, has everything to do with The Story So Far in the setting, and the piece does a nice job of folding more into what has already been established, more fully linking the two previous stories and giving it all a bit more direction. It balances a rather huge cast with a lot of moving parts, manages some action and twists, and promises more to come.
Keywords: Nanobots, Nature, Control, AIs, Judgments
Review: Alexnya is an interesting character to focus on, the girl left behind in the aftermath of “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories.” Just as “The Emotionless, In Love” focused on how Colton came out of things, this one looks at what happened to those left behind. And it does a great job of melding the cast there, with Alexnya and Chakatie and her family, with those who went through the horrors of Sri Sa’s transformation. I am genuinely excited to see where the story will go from this point. As a story in itself, though, I feel it mostly acts as a transition. The setting has established that the grains are agents of a static kind of peace, one where nothing is allowed to grow or evolve. They are a reactionary measure produced as a last ditch attempt to save the planet. And they worked. But they think they were meant to be eternal, maintaining a “healthy” balance for the planet while punishing humanity for its transgressions. And I think the story does some interesting work with that, building up this idea of the grains seeing themselves as judges, as guardians in an authoritarian sense. Unwilling to see that change is vital, that humanity is not the same as it was when it wrecked the planet. That there’s no point to a warning if the people being warned never have the power to make the same mistakes again. Alexnya is being punished for something she didn’t do, for basically having original sin because of what the humans did to the planet. But that damage has been fixed. And in many ways the penance has been paid. And people are seeing that the grains are wardens of a planet-wide prison where humanity apparently has earned a life sentence. This story underlines that point and gets a group of rebels in place to maybe challenge that. But it offers very little in the way of closure, and not quite so much feeling of things hitting the fan as the previous two stories. But it’s an entertaining ride, certainly, and it’s great to catch up with the characters and see them get ready to step into the unknown, a chaotic pot about ready to boil. I can’t wait for what comes next!


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