|Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen|
It’s something of a surprise to find that the March Clarkesworld has six new fiction pieces and none of them are translations. What it does feature are six science fiction stories that range from wry and fun to grim and gutting. A few of the stories return to settings previously established (in stories I believe also came out at Clarkesworld), while others do some very new things. And there’s still plenty of ground to cover, with three shorts and three novelettes, and a few running themes that people might want to be aware of, most notably substance abuse. But there’s a lot of beauty, a lot of messy relationships and characters, and some fine reading. To the reviews!
“Time Reveals the Heart” by Derek Künsken (5804 words)
No Spoilers: Lěi is a kind of time traveler, a person who can jump into the past to conduct mostly anthropological research about what it was like. It’s mostly passive, doing its best to be non-interfering, but sometimes things happen. Like a jumper losing a camera in the past, where someone from that time might find it. Which is enough of an emergency that Lěi is assigned a retrieval job, and on New Years no less, a day that’s supposed to be spent with family. His mother is an alcoholic, though, and the weight of that pushes Lěi into interacting with an AI version of his mother instead, all the while not really facing his own growing urge to abuse the drug that allows him to travel through time, which has the effect of expanding his mind and leaving him feeling connected to the universe. It’s a dense story that covers some delicate issues, but the story is careful throughout, respectful of the complicated web of things going on. And it’s ultimately a heartwarming read about facing your demons and trying to exorcise them.
Keywords: Time Travel, CW- Substance Abuse/Addiction, Family, Employment, Temptation
Review: I really appreciate what how this story approaches the complicated situation between Lěi and his mother. The way that substance abuse has made her seem like someone completely different. Not his real mother. And it’s a kind of denial that makes a lot of his decisions a lot easier, because if it’s not his mother than he doesn’t have to feel bad not really helping her. Not being there for her and instead retreating into his own drive toward escape from his body. The time travel really just gives him access to his drug of choice. The thing being that by most standards, he’s not actually abusing the drug. He wants to, but he’s not doing it. And that really speaks to me of what addiction and substance abuse does, that it doesn’t start (typically) with diving off the deep end. It starts with small creeping steps forward, more and more, until you realize that you’re in the deep end all the same, flailing. And here Lěi gets to catch himself, gets to see through the issues of another jumper what might be in store for him. Because he understands it. Because he still wants it. And it’s that, to me, that allows him to step back. Perhaps he could have controlled himself. But the strain of wanting it probably wouldn’t go away, and if he ever did give in, he might do things that can’t be undone. And I like that, from that, he’s able to reach out to his mother, too, and start to see through the lie that she’s someone else. Her addiction might have changed a lot of things about her, but she’s still there, and if he wants any relationship with her, he has to face the reality of her. It’s a touching and powerful story, and a great way to kick off the issue!
“Coffee Boom: Decoction, Micronized” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (7233 words)
No Spoilers: Ava is a chronic job hopper, going from coffee place to coffee place to, finally, the bottom of the barrel, a diner. But she’s propelled by a love of coffee and a drive to make the perfect cup. It’s an obsession, a passion, a life’s work, and she’s not about to give up on it. Especially not once her best friend puts her onto a special way to grind coffee that truly unleashes the inner flavor, a method that combines partical physics, art, and cooking. It’s Ava’s ticket to a better life...if she can pull of a heist to bring it all together. The piece moves quickly, following Ava and her quest. It’s light on stakes, perhaps, but heavy on personality, and I personally love how the piece combines its elements and delivers a fun, triumphantly flavorful reading experience.
Keywords: Cooking, Art, Coffee, Employment, Theft
Review: Ava is perhaps not the easiest character to like, thanks to her drive toward perfection and her desire to be a verbally abusive celebrity chef/culinary consultant. But for all that she’s bitter and angry that she’s been frustrated and thwarted in her attempts to find the perfect coffee, underneath that is really a one track mind who just wants to do this one thing very, very well. And for me the piece becomes about passion, about the way that it’s leveraged, the way that it’s exploited. Ava has a talent with coffee, and yet none of the ways people are offering to pay her to work are really using that talent to do anything interesting. To drive sales, to get a CEO a few more dollars. But it lacks the kind of ambition that she has, an ambition that she can’t match with her own funds. And it sort of shows how ambition and skills just aren’t rewarded under capitalism. Not without some...er...less than legal boosts. And that’s a lot of it for me, that Ava has to become technically a criminal just to do something that turns out is exactly what will make not only the best cup of coffee, but the most money. She can succeed, and her ideas take off, but without a ton of money, it’s all sunk, that potential wasted. And yay, the story is how she doesn’t accept that and is able to “win” anyway, but for me so much of it comes down to the lies that she lived with for so long, the anger and resentment that yes, fades when she is able to succeed, but that almost feels like a dream. It’s a joy to read, and I like that it doesn’t have success come with this Hidden Cost, but it does show that it’s success that allows her to be happy. It’s being able to act on her ambition. And without that she is more resentful, more angry. Because it’s not fair, and the system is designed that way. Still, it’s a really fun story and definitely worth checking out!
“Leave-Taking” by M. L. Clark (9672 words)
No Spoilers: Told as a series of audio recordings to a woman (Silv) in a sort of medically-induced coma, the narrator is Leni, who’s kind of a fuckup and who’s had an off again, on again, messy-as-hell relationship with Silv for a number of years. The piece is I think set earlier than the previous story I’ve read in the setting, “To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things”, and finds the Partnership (of which humanity is a part) sharing a planet with four other species (the militaristic Saludons, the energy-jellfish Esh, the fungi Feru, and spider-like Spinners). The story details the first (rather disastrous) meeting between a human and the Feru, and the extended fall out from that. And in many ways it’s a story about Leni sort of introspecting and interrogating his decisions and his relationship with Silv. Trying to make sense of it and also trying to do something new. The voice is funny and hapless, the action is interesting, especially for fans of the setting, and the ending hits some deep and resonating notes.
Keywords: Aliens, Space, First Contact, Fungi, Replication
Review: I really like the meandering way that this story explores the character of Leni through this misadventure, through his own kind of storytelling, which is part confession, part self guided therapy. And it’s a new take on the idea of partnership in a setting where that’s really important. And while the last story I covered in the setting was a lot about how partnership works and the promise of it, the power of it, this one looks at what happens when that’s not happening, when there’s a relationship and it’s not even, and instead of strengthening everyone involved, it’s doing the opposite. Because the relationship that Leni and Silv have isn’t exactly a great one. It’s messy, and in its own way it’s beautiful at times. But more it’s something that they’ve crafted out of trauma and need, both of them in it because they’re afraid. Afraid there’s nothing better. Afraid they deserve nothing better. Afraid of the uncertainty that would come from ending the relationship. It takes a lot for Leni to start to see the pattern of his actions, to start to get outside his own perspective and understand that what he’s doing has consequences, and that what he’s doing doesn’t have a lot to do with what he wants. That he’s stuck, and he’s not exactly happy, and it takes a series of dramatic events to push him into confrontation with that. To make him face his own cycles and then attempt to break out of them. Because he is a walking disaster, not really committed to his work and mostly just trying not to stand still because that’s when the feelings flood in, his paralyzing issues that its takes an entire alien fungus to deal with. And it explores when it might be best that partnerships end, and what comes next. And throughout it is a fun piece, a romp, a comedy of errors all provoking these deeper emotional insights. The framing is great, the voice is fantastic, and the story as a whole is powerfully built. A fantastic read!
“The Amusement Dark” by Mike Buckley (11860 words)
No Spoilers: Cal is on a mission to investigate planets and stations abandoned following a great war between humans and the First Ones, AIs who cast off their creators and imposed their dominance on the inhabited systems. Cal began the mission with his wife and, soon after, their child. But now he is joined only by a geezix, and the nature of the creature, and Cal’s situation, become clear as he explores an old military installation that a mysterious sect of First Ones turned into a kind of amusement park. The piece is incredibly grim and heavy with loss and with elements of gore and horror. At it’s core, though, it’s also a rather tender exploration of grief and loss, activity and purpose, featuring people who have lost so so much.
Keywords: Space, Amusement Parks, AIs, Exploration, Wars, CW- Trauma, CW- Death of a Child, CW- Substance Abuse
Review: For being the longest story in the issue, this one certainly isn’t the lightest. I dare say it wasn’t exactly a fun read for me, though I think that’s very intentional. The piece drips tragedy, and Cal is at the bottom of a deep well. He’s lost his wife and child, is plagued by guilt and despair about both, and now lives with a being made up of the flesh of both of them, a walking, talking reminder of what he’s lost and can never have back. And it’s maybe kept him alive. And I think that’s very interesting, that the First Ones understand people on a deep level but also don’t. They don’t know how to heal him, but they know how to focus his energy. They give him a geezix I think not to have a surrogate but to make him angry, to goad him away from self termination. It takes something much deeper to start to push him past that, to a place where he can recognize positive emotions again. Warmth. Love. It takes more humans being around, and ones who understand loss on the level that he does. In some ways the piece is like Cal finally finding a support group. Not that their experiences are his own, but they’ve all lost people, all been put in this incredibly painful place by AI mostly out of a sense of curiosity. Not to heal them, but to see what they’ll do. Which is rather terrifying, because it’s a place where the AIs are in control, where they won. And where a lot of what they do is keep humans engaged enough that they feel mostly in control, when really they aren’t. And in that the story follows Cal as he goes from being okay with that to...I guess maybe realizing the extent to which he’s checking out of his own life. And it’s a wrenching and difficult read for it, because there’s so much misery and pain, so much torn apart and pieced back together but not completely. It leaves these very profoundly damaged characters who still manage to begin to find their way towards hope, even as the AIs might be there in the background, learning, watching. It’s got a lot of content warnings, but I do think that it’s very much worth spending some time with, and the world building and prose are engaging, the character work solid, if relying hard on some emotional heavy artillery. A fine read!
“Grayer Than Lead, Heavier Than Snow” by Yukimi Ogawa (8536 words)
No Spoilers: This story also dips back into an established setting, revisiting Craftperson Kiriko and her mentor as they work on the strange island where some people are born with colors on their skins, a mark that sets them apart and above. The colorless are seen as lower class, even throse who are able to understand and craft using the strange magic of the island, the manipulation of patterns in order to create real-world effects. A pattern at the bottom of a cup that will make the contents improve blood circulation. A pattern to make food on shelves look more appealing. Patterns in carpets and walls to encourage calm and happiness. Of, as with their latest assignment, a pattern to make some medication more effective so that it can be stretched to last longer. Of course, not everything is as it seems, and it draws Kiriko into a situation with far reaching consequences. The piece is slow and dense with world building, but also a rather earnest story about castes and community, art and skill.
Keywords: Colors, Castes, Infections, Androids, Islands, Crafts
Review: I like getting another glance at this world, this island where people are separated by their skin color, though not in the usual way. And I like Kiriko’s resolve through it, her kindness, and the way that it focuses on the ways that the oppressed can get through their own prejudices against each other to start helping each other and working for a better, more just world. The piece expands what had been revealed before by getting more into the andos, android people who act largely on behalf of the rulers and powerful on the island. As such they wear their prejudices toward the colorless on their sleeves, despite not really being treated well themselves. They are seen as servants to those in power, and to the colorless they come off as cold and arrogant. Worse, they’re put in charge of the jobs that other people don’t want to dirty their own hands doing. To the point where Kiriko is essentially tricked and threatened into doing work that she finds unethical, that keeps her up at night. And I like how the situation probably could have been sorted much more easily if only the andos and the craftspeople could trust each other and approach each other openly and honestly. Because the andos have a problem, but because they deceived the craftspeople, they don’t get to explain how they need help. It escalates. But I also like that it’s not too late. That Kiriko is able to push through her own hurt feelings and ask after the andos, notice that there’s something bad going on and then take steps to reach out, to try and help. It gives the piece a much more hopeful feel for me, because it shows that through that compassion and care, through mutual aid, they can both rise and find some shelter from the prejudices of the ruling elite. It’s a lovely read!
“The Whale Fall at the End of the Universe” by Cameron Van Sant (2313 words)
No Spoilers: Tristar is a celestial creature with solar sails and the ability to both photosynthesize and metabolize food. They wake with no memory, barely conscious, flitting between hibernation from lack of energy, and the awareness of their situation. They spot a dead space whale, and thanks to a quick assist from a being on the whale, are able to eat and regain their energy. And they meet more beings, and things sort of go from there. The piece captures a great sense of distance and yearning, a quiet loss that resolves into new hope.
Keywords: Whales, Space, Scavenging, Relationships, Sign Language, Non-binary MC
Review: The story for me really does sort of capture this fragile beauty in the face of what might be a universe-wide die-off. At least when it comes to those who live between, in the darkness there. It’s never revealed what happened to Tristar’s family, or the rest of their people, but the implication I get isn’t exactly cheery. Things are winding down, the whales dying, and though that leads to brief surges in smaller life, in scavengers, it doesn’t really do much more. Except that there’s this small thing happening on the whale, the meeting of Tristar and Hunter, and their feelings growing and warming as they spend time together. It’s a tiny, tender thing in the face of the vast cold, the possible end of their ecosystem, and there’s a beauty there that I appreciate. Strangely, I kind of feel bad for the creature that pulled Tristar from space, who saved them and didn’t immediately eat them. Because while the story gives an explanation for why it would do that, it’s one that Tristar just sort of assumes, and never confirms. This creature becomes the Beast, and is the primary villain going forward. But it never seems actively Bad. Even when Tristar wakes to find the Beast and Hunter fighting, they don’t know what started the fight. Given that Hunter slipped from their den without saying anything, I almost suspect that the Beast was not the aggressor, and yet Tristar helps Hunter and kills the Beast and that seemed just a little unfair to me, especially after the help that the Beast rendered. Not that it erases the lovely ending that the story manages (I’m not going to go around with #JusticefortheBeast banners), but I did wonder a bit there, about the Beast, and by extension how truthful Hunter was being about everything. Still, it’s a nicely rendered and kinda haunting story, one that unfolds in the vast empty of space, which wasn’t perhaps always so empty. A fine read!