Monday, April 20, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #163

Art by Beeple
Clarkesworld returns in April with a full load of stories and a return of translated fiction. The works are diverse (though almost entirely science fiction) and lean a bit toward the dark, the chilling, and the horrific. They show people dealing with distance, and with the desire to be with another person. A desire that can strengthen and embolden people to strive for good, or can twist people toward greed and possessiveness. A lot of the works deal with people dealing with their relationship ending, or in imminent threat of ending, and what they do to either save it, try to save it, or break it entirely. It’s a fairly cohesive and strong issue, and I’ll get to my reviews!


“Distant Stars” by P H Lee (3267 words)

No Spoilers: This piece opens with the narrator, Sarah Levy, spending some time with her son. She’s doing graduate work and supposed to be looking for work but nothing is really speaking to her, inspiring her. And it’s killing her marriage. It takes divorce and some years before she finds what she’s looking for, and before that takes her directions she never could have dreamed about. As much as the story is about science, though, it’s also about spinning, about falling apart, about distance and about family. It takes these scientific ideas that might be applied to further humanity’s reach and potential and then uses them to explore something very intimate and limited. A single relationship, mother and son, with a war of emotions and feelings and a possible heartbreaking conclusion.
Keywords: Space, Spinning, Family, CW- Divorce, Queer MC, CW- Death of a(n adult) Child(?)
Review: Told in the second person, I like how the piece becomes something of a confession, something of a prayer. It has the feel and the power of something said at a bedside in a hospital, a kind of story that acts as a form of bargaining. A desperate need to say the things that have been unsaid. For the narrator, for Dr. Levy, it’s a chance it seems to maybe make up for something said so long ago, when her son was only four. To make up for a kind of resentment and anger that she didn’t exactly mean, except that she did. For me the piece has the feeling of a person trying to explain themself, trying to explain why things played out the way it did, why she wasn’t as big a part of his life as she might have been. For me it’s fueled by this guilt, this feeling or fear that she has that she’s failed because she wasn’t there for her family, wasn’t a “proper” mother, and prioritized her scientific research over being more what she might have been to provide for her family. And it’s something she carries with her throughout her son’s life, even as she’s doing these huge things, winning the Nobel, making it maybe possible to travel almost instantly. To redefine the laws of physics. And in some ways the piece asks what’s more important? Is she a failure for not being with her son as he grew up? Because they drifted apart, torn away by the forces of the universe, by their natures and the physical distance between them? I don’t think the story is saying that she’s failed, though. It carries an almost heartbreaking tragedy, a possible wrenching cost to trying to be close to her son, but at the same time the story doesn’t ultimately come down and say what’s happened. It implies by tracing the tendency of things to spin away from each other, to accelerate away. But it still finds a power in the words of the narrator, the love that she has for her son. That might just be enough to bridge the gap. Or might not. Either way, though, I think it shows that the universe itself is pulling people away, and that every relationship is in defiance of that, and sometimes, through no fault on any side, that force wins out. It’s sad and it’s beautifully done, and whew, I might need a break to recover my feels. A wonderful read!

“AirBody” by Sameem Siddiqui (4981 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story uses AirBody to share his body with people from around the world or beyond. And today he’s sharing with Meena, an aunty whose designs for his body seem at first to be culinary. She arrives and begins cooking a meal, and through her cooking the narrator is faced with his own life, through memory touched by the dish she is cooking, the way she is acting. He remembers his losses, and what has brought him to this moment. And then he’s given something of a surprise when he realizes that it’s not just cooking that Meena had plans for. The piece is run through with a light and charming humor, the slightly needling way that Meena has fun at the narrator’s expense. But there’s affinity there as well, and care, and maybe the two both get to experience something they’ve been missing, reminding them of the choices they’ve made, and making them question if it’s too late to change things.
Keywords: Body Sharing, Cooking, Memory, Family, Relationships, Queer Characters
Review: The story for me is heavy with fragrance, with memory, and with regret. It flits between, the smells and tastes of the meal that Meena prepares bringing to life the progression of memories that the narrator seems mostly to have been avoiding. He’s stuck now that his parents are gone, now that his partner has left him. There’s a grief that has mostly faded but it’s muted everything else. He doesn’t have much to live for, and so has literally become a passenger in his own body, letting other people use him for various tasks and situations. He’s checked out, found that he’s without a lot of motivation. He’s depressed, and seems either to not recognize what that is or is more active suppressing his knowledge so that he can wallow. But the food brings him back out, reminds him of so many good times, so many bad times, that he feels again. That he can’t help but be brought back into his mind. And he realizes at some point that’s what Meena is doing as well, in some ways. Or that’s probably what Meena did do. That she let herself be swayed into complacency, into not taking action to be with the person she wanted to be with. And she now regrets that, and has rented the narrator’s body in order to maybe make that right. Or try to. But of course she’s only come so far, and even after everything she still doesn’t seem willing to step fully outside her cage. The lingering lesson is that maybe it’s not too late for the narrator to make the same mistake, that maybe he can still salvage something of the relationship, if he cares to. And the ending then, is something of a let down there, because it shows the narrator refusing. Settling into the same pattern that Meena just warned him to stay out of. And it’s real and it’s wrenching and it makes me want to believe he can still change and learn while suspecting he at least already thinks it’s too late. A great read!

“A System for Investigating Recapitulation and Evolutionary Novelty” by Kyle E Miller (5156 words)

No Spoilers: L, like everyone (it seems) in her world, loves on a leaf, a sort of contained box that provides for her needs, that absorbs her waste and connects her virtually to the rest of humanity. It keeps her safe but isolated, and after a breakup with her girlfriend, L finds the isolation more than she can bear. The piece builds a rather claustrophobic feel for the way that people live here, cut with the ease that she is subjected to virtual harassment. And it imagines the lengths she might go to in order to escape, to try and find a bit of genuine connection in a place where everything feels artificial. It’s an interesting setting, and the piece deals with some big ideas in a quasi Matrix-esque sense, though like that project there are elements that don’t seem to completely come together for me.
Keywords: Leaves, Virtual Spaces, CW- Self Injury, CW- Sexual Assault, Queer MC, Lullabys
Review: This story builds around the idea that basically people are born, live, and die on their leaves. It provides everything for them in exchange for them doing work, which seems to be doing a certain amount of interactions with other people. It’s strange, and a bit haunting, because for all the supposed safety this is supposed to provide, L still has to deal with near-constant harassment. For me the piece feels almost like it’s made the internet a physical space, where L is hooked up all the time and earns her keep by basically interacting with other people so that the AI behind the system can learn how to interact better, to strengthen the algorithms behind everything. There’s also a certain sinister feeling that the story builds for me, as L becomes more and more convinced that she needs to escape her leaf, that something better is waiting for her if she can get away, if she can reach a song she hears rising up from below her. I have a slight aversion to stories that are about the need for physical touch and intimacy in a virtual setting, as in many ways rejecting the virtual as somehow not real or not human. But I do appreciate the ways the story complicates the idea of safety in this setting, peeling away the lie that these people are safe, the lie that said safety has made them free. I’m not sure what is behind it, as the administration of the piece is a bit mysterious, and the implications surrounding the ending for me seems ambiguous, cutting away as something big seems to be happening. It’s a well rendered story, at turns visceral and yearning, and with a nice weirdness to it. It’s certainly worth spending some time with!

“The ThoughtBox” by Tlotlo Tsamaase (6439 words)

No Spoilers: This story follows a narrator who thinks she’s just in a kinda shitty relationship with a kinda shitty guy, but one she’s sunk enough time into that dumping him seems like an overreaction. Only he brings a new device into their home, presumably to help them understand each other better, and instead it opens all sorts of doors that might have been better off left closed. Better off for him, at least. For the narrator, the piece follows a rather terrifying series of revelations, ones that make her question who she is, and lead her to taking some rather drastic action. The piece is visceral and fast, the tone slipping from a woman confronting her own bad taste in men to a woman having her whole world shattered. It’s a tense, compelling read full of twists and shadows, that still manages a kind of honest humor amidst the darkness.
Keywords: Thought Sharing, Relationships, Secrets, CW- Abuse, Control, Cyborgs
Review: I do love the voice of the piece, the way that the narrator is trapped between these two different modes. One, when she’s alone, and the other, when her boyfriend is around. A boyfriend who is obviously a complete shitbag. Toxic and lying, manipulative and unfaithful, he sort of takes the scumbag cake, and yet somehow the narrator stays with him. At least until she finds what he’s been hiding from her. Not just the affair that she kind of suspected. Something much bigger, and much worse. The piece builds so nicely, so creepily, bringing the narrator from a place where she’s questioning her judgement to a place where she’s literally questioning her humanity, her mind and body autonomy. Because that meekness that she gets when she’s around him isn’t just societal training, isn’t just being afraid of being alone and having that stigma. It’s literal mental control he’s exerting over her, and it’s that control that he seeks that ends up revealing him, because without it he wouldn’t have gotten the ThoughtBox, and without that she wouldn’t have discovered the truth. And there’s more to this story, or at least it feels that way to me, a mystery that is just opening up as the piece closes. One that has everything to do with what exactly has been done to her. For me it’s like the first half of a sci fi thriller novel condensed into a short story, and it’s damned impressive just how quickly and devastatingly it escalates, capturing her horror, yes, but also her rage and her need to act. And I would watch this movie, as scared as hell as it would make me. It’s a sharp story about relationships and the poisons in them, the toxic men who deserve no better than a frying pan to the brain. Just a gripping, thrilling ride, and one very much worth checking out!

“Debtless” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Blake Stone-Banks (16475 words)

No Spoilers: Square Head is a miner on a space station/converted asteroid called Mother Whale, which houses a small crew of indebted miners who search for valuable meteors to exploit for their corporation on Earth. They carry their debt, as everyone does, in their genetic code, a weight that seems only to get added to. On Mother Whale, no one remembers their previous lives, are just made to trust that the system is fair because their memories have been altered to “help” them trust. But Square Head is having disturbing dreams, and after a few deadly accidents on the station, those become nightmares that wake hum up to what might be a terrible conspiracy going on. The piece is almost-but-not-quite a novella, so it’s got plenty of room to stretch, and it lays out a complex and provocative look at debt, societal cohesion, and love.
Keywords: Space, Mining, Debts, Bargains, Genetic Manipulation
Review: This story has a rather sharp take on debt, looking at the ways that people are manipulated into taking more and more of it, creating classes that are set in stone, a labor class that is basically slave to the elites. And with the use of technology that inequality and injustice, that corruption, becomes easier and easier to reinforce. To codify, even to the point where it’s written into the DNA of the population. And every cost, then, becomes an opportunity to turn the screws a bit more, to pressure people into taking on more and more debt, so that there’s no hope that they can come up from out of it. The interest compounds, and compounds. And I love how Square Head is the realist, the one who can see the numbers, who knows that they are essentially doomed, that maybe the best way is to not take any chances. While other people around him, the string of women who are the hunters, believe that they have to take risks, trying for that big payday to wipe out their debts. Except that Square Head starts to realize that the situation he’s been told he’s in, the mining operation, isn’t structured to allow an escape. The crew thinks they are acting to repay on something when in reality they’ve been trapped in a cycle that was never meant to end. And I love where that goes, the way the floor drops out from under Square Head as he tries to navigate this, as he does the math and comes up with the only way he can think of to go forward. And the ending plays with that nicely, brings the drama back to Earth rather than calling what happens at the mining station an ending. Because it needs some sort of resolution, some sort of choice made with a full view of the facts. And to its credit the story does a nice job with that, even with the way it gets heavier with exposition and information. The true horror of the system is revealed, larger in scope than the one that is ultimately described and I like that he can see through some of the lies, can tell what’s a corporate fairy tale, and then act to try and push back against the gravity pulling him toward corruption. At last he can see the promises for something better for what they are: hooks that will dig into him and chain him to a perpetual debt. It’s a sharp and moving piece that doesn’t lose sight of fighting against a system that seems omnipotent, that seems too powerful to resist. And yet. A wonderful story!

“Angel Pattern” by Henry Szabranski (8862 words)

No Spoilers: This story rejoins Percher and Skink, who had previously escaped the home they had grown up in, the giant construct Motherman, and reached a plateau out of reach of a deadly mist. There they battle a witch who had power over the left-over building blocks of civilization, the weave left behind by the now absent pattermakers. Now they’ve taken what they learned from the witch before they vanquished her to reach a city with a library that might have the resources to help them. As they traveled, though, the relationship between Percher and Skink has gotten a bit more...complicated. Already messy, it’s been twisted by Percher’s increasing feeling of uselessness next to the new abilities Skink has learned and a drunk night with maybe a little making out hasn’t exactly made things easier. What they find in the city, though, isn’t what either of them expect. The setting continues to be an interesting one a tale of a world deeply wounded, and the people trying to survive, and maybe something more.
Keywords: Disability, Pain, Queer MC, Patterns, Mist
Review: The city that Percher and Skink arrive in isn’t exactly brimming with answers. It’s strange, and a bit haunting, and a bit haunted. But then, so are Percher and Skink, both of them trying to figure out the new dynamic between them, the new balance. Skink, no longer the girl needing to be carried, in pain all the time and a bit resentful perhaps of being treated like she can’t do anything on her own. Percher, meanwhile, is equally hurt, both because she feels she’s lost her role and purpose, and because she keeps learning ways that Skink has hidden her pain and her true feelings. It makes for a fraught exploration of the city, the two at odds more often than not, afraid of hurting each other or being hurt in turn. It’s something that almost makes them despair, that almost leads them to a bad end, but neither of them give up on the other. Despite it being different, they find ways to embrace the new, the change, to break free of the patterns that weren’t really working for either of them. And even if their abilities are not equal, they are still balanced, and still care about each other enough to be careful, to find a new way to be together, and to strive for something new, a pattern that doesn’t just replicate all the old harms. That said, the conflict shifts from the previous story, where there was a definite villain, back to seeing the setting as a whole as a sort of obstacle and antagonist. One that is toxic, but isn’t beyond healing or hope. And largely the story replaces the external conflicts with internal ones. The demons to fight now are their own doubts and fears and mistrusts. It leaves them in a much more hopeful place, and it makes for a fun and heartwarming read!


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