Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #164

Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen
Clarkesworld comes with three short stories and three novelettes this month, which is about average for the publication but does mean a heck of a lot to cover. Luckily the works are interesting and varied, offering up pretty much entirely science fictional visions of futures that revolve around loss and destruction. Invasion and exploitation. And characters trying to get by, trying to survive, and trying to save the world. It’s a neat mix of near future, far future, humor, apocalyptic, and giant robot stories that hopefully has something for every fan of the genre. So let’s get to the reviews!


“What Happens in Solarium Square 21” by Ashleigh Shears (5044 words)

No Spoilers: Xohan L, Sholo Nine, and Home Hubble are all assistant AIs/robots who have found a way to beat the system. Kind of. As long as they can keep the body of their former owner alive enough looking for infrequent “sun time” excursions to the home’s larger shared gardens. They manage through an innovative blend of 3D printing and lack of keen oversight, but a series of bad luck and a bubbling tension within the groups might just ruin everything. The piece is a strange mix of comedy and heartfelt sap. The character work is solid and the relationship between Xohan and Sholo is wonderful.
Keywords: Robots, Corpses, Fraud, Friendship, Charging
Review: This story has a nice mixture of sweetness and comedy, playing especially with the tension between Xohan and Sholo (with Double H in there as their peacekeeper and third wheel) while building this rather ridiculous situation where they’re trying to pass off a corpse as a living person so that they can collect the corpses money and not have to be put back into general circulation (or decommissioned permanently, given their age). Of the three, Xohan seems to be the grumpiest, especially after Sholo wrecked his charging station. Sullenly refusing to recharge, the others see this as some sort of rebellion, not realizing that there’s a reason he’s avoiding it. And really amidst a madcap farce of ears falling off and trying to avoid the lack supervision of the building’s landlord, there’s some real tender moments of awareness and vulnerability as the characters, who have been so focused on maintaining their freedom, actually talk about some of their feelings, and get a better appreciation of each other and what they want out of life. For Sholo it might be new experiences and adventures, might be enjoying music and art and things like that. For Xohan, though, it might be more about _who_ he’s with rather than what he’s doing, and the ending is perhaps romantic, perhaps just showing a deep friendship between him and Sholo. It’s sweet and it’s fun, and it actually manages a good deal of action between the slapstick and the rather tense confrontation when it seems like the jig is finally up. The personalities of the characters shine through, and balance each other nicely, while the stakes are personally very high and the payoff is adorable. For me it’s about choice as much as it’s about freedom, for as much as Xohan finds the loss of focus and reward that came with service to a human pleasurable, he wants something else, and wants everyone else to respect that decision. A lovely and hilarious read!

“Albedo Season” by Ray Nayler (7115 words)

No Spoilers: told by an unnamed narrator to an unnamed grandchild of one of the characters within the nested narrative, this story covers a seemingly-doomed colonization on an unknown moon. The ships crashed. Most of the people died. But a small core managed to survive, and managed to live despite the difficulties. When the struggling population begins struggling more because of a strange blight, though, one among them sees a new danger, and knows that they have to do something drastic, or risk complete destruction. The piece has some clear parallels to things going on now on Earth, and while it might come across as a little heavy in that way, that doesn’t mean what it’s saying isn’t important and needing some immediate and drastic action.
Keywords: Planetary Colonization, Climate Change, Disasters, Science!, Plants
Review: I like the way the story unfolds around a young person going to the oldest of the colonists in order to try and convince them that action needs to be taken, hoping that as long as they could be convinced, everyone else could be convinced. Not, I think, because they are the most conservative of the people in the colony, but because their voices, as survivors of the original crash, are still very much valued. And in many ways because they survived that crisis, it’s possible that they’ll be more realistic about the need to do something drastic to survive. And that, really, is a big part of the story for me, that the appeal as its made by this young woman to these elders because they _should_ realize that there’s no avoiding some things. As climate refugees fleeing Earth. As people with first hand knowledge of how bad things can get, how hard. They still remember losing so many friends in the crashes. That in many ways should be enough to convince them that they don’t want to need more. And the argument is scientific, yes, and thorough, and yet I like how the story shows how fragile that is. That all it might take was for one of these people to argue against it, to be belligerent, and everything might have fallen apart. That science is a useful tool, yes, but it’s not always persuasive, especially not when the decision it’s prompting will be hard and unpleasant and doesn’t have a definitive timeline. They know something will happen. They don’t know when. And they can’t tell if it’s already too late. Now, the story is rather hopeful in that it’s not too late. The colony is able to avert the worst of it, and survive, and realize the impact they were having on the moon. Which does almost make it sound like a fairy tale. A fable. A bit unreal. But still needed, unfortunately, with our own crisis looming, already leading to disaster and death. So it’s a nice shot in the arm, a warning to start doing something, and it’s a fine read!

“A Stick of Lay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential” by JY Neon Yang (10682 words)

No Spoilers: Stick is a pilot in the papal army’s most elite fighting force--a group of four mechs who can single-handedly destroy whole cities. And the story finds Stick deeply manipulated, abused, and conditioned to be a weapon and only a weapon, for all that Stick finds others thoughts creeping in as well. Most of those thoughts have to do with Versus, the sigil in the mech that the two of them share. Versus, the “perfect” weapon, who is only one of two able to power the largest and most impressive of mechs. The papal army has one, and their enemies have another. And Stick is eager for that fight, even while the rest of the mech pilots and sigils have something else entirely in mind. It’s a complex work that moves from third to second to finally first person perspectives, showing Stick dealing with the complexities of identity when brought up in trauma and toxicity.
Keywords: Mechs, Queer Characters, Religion, Trauma, Gender, War
Review: This is a complex and at times very difficult story, in large part of me because the piece deals with people who are deeply traumatized and who have been essentially brainwashed and manipulated to be weapons. To the point that Stick uses It pronouns, because Stick doesn’t really feel like a person. That identifying as a weapon is something that’s very tricky, but is grounded here for me in how the rest of the group treats Stick, how they recognize the ways that Stick has been hurt and knows in many ways that Stick is at the beginning of a journey that probably doesn’t end with It pronouns. But it’s so hard navigating because pronouns, because identity, are so intimate and messy things, where no one can say that Stick’s pronouns are wrong even as they reflect a deeply toxic and harmful mentality. The story takes care to slowly complicate Stick’s understanding of gender, though, and brings Stick to a point of being better able to feel like something other than an object, other than a weapon. Perhaps that kind of journey views identifying as a weapon as a symptom of abuse and trauma, but personally I don’t disagree with that. The story is, after all, about escaping war, about refusing to be a weapon where the goal is merely to increase the power and influence of one “elite” group over another. There is no “right” to this war, no need for it. It’s fueled by religious indoctrination and divine entitlement, and again, I personally find the rejecting of that kind of conflict to be a kind of positive change, a being able to value life and joy (personal and societal) over authority and domination. And the setting is stunning, brash, and full of action and deeper thought. I’m personally a big fan of mechs, and the conflict between the sides is realistically inane and hinged on small differences made large through policy and propaganda. The cast is diverse, and there’s a great deal of care taken around what is a very delicate subject of gender and identity. And it makes for a fine read!

“Quantum Fish” by Bo Balder (9061 words)

No Spoilers: Havi left her family, and her planet, far behind her when she decided to pursue a job that wasn’t taking over the family fish business. Returning after a long absence of estrangement, she’s hoping to make peace with her past, and her family, in person. But even before she’s home she finds that things have changed, and the fish trade that is the planet’s largest industry might be in serious trouble. To say nothing of the welcome she might be in for. The piece is an interesting mix of family drama and scientific and ecological mystery, all set against galaxy-wide world building that imagines a post-Earth human expansion heavy with the touches of past alien civilizations and a different alien threat that poses a threat on the quantum level. It’s lively and entertaining, with some daring-do amidst some deeper character work.
Keywords: Fish, Space, Family, Journalism, Aliens, Observation
Review: I like the mess that Havi returns to, thinking that her homecoming is just sort of a step in her own coming to terms with her past and her family. She’s coming back after having made her name and something of her mark, and she seems hopeful that she can establish a new status quo with her family, a relationship where she’s not just the daughter that left, the sister that left, and might be able to revive something, even if she also fears that’s impossible. At the same time, the piece is about her relationship with the planet, as well, and all that she gave up by leaving to travel the galaxy and get into journalism. How she returns expecting nothing to be different, but there have been drastic changes on the planet. Nothing is exactly as she left it, and at the same time that it makes her something of a stranger to the place that she always found familiar, it also gives her the perspective necessary to see what might be going on, to be able to give voice to the ways that the changes seem to resonate and lead to some larger pattern. Not that it’s obvious at first, but slowly she’s able to use just the training that led to her break from her family in order to save the entire planet. Which is pretty big, and great. And I like the way the story captures the conflict in Havi, the frustration she feels about people not liking her and punishing her for leaving, and the way that means she can’t really grieve for the home that she’s lost. And just when it seems like she’ll really lose things forever, I love that she’s given a chance to reconnect, to more fully understand her home while also opening a way of maybe reconciling with her family on her own terms. It’s a fun read that implies a lot more about the setting it unfolds in, and I definitely recommend checking it out!

“The Language Sheath” by Regina Kanyu Wang, translated by Emily Jin & Regina Kanyu Wang (8674 words)

No Spoilers: Ilsa is a single mother with some issues, not least of which is that she’s a language teacher of a language that seems to be on the decline as global languages like English come in and make it so that some children become disconnected from the language of their parents, of their historical home. For Ilsa, the only way to push back against that is to join with a global translation business that will use her as a template to create their language sheath for her mother tongue. All she has to do is talk seven hours a day for a year. The issue and the conflict arises from what she talks about, and how it reveals a rather wrenching portrait of a mother and son in conflict, twisted around her insecurities, hurts, and prejudices. It’s a wrenching look at abuse and pride, language and culture, and it didn’t exactly go in the direction I thought it might.
Keywords: Language, Translation, Family, CW- Abuse, CW- Self-harm/Ideation
Review: For me a lot of the story revolves around the ways that languages can spread and kind of “invade” and how, when that happens, there are often nationalist responses. As a story in translation, that this piece deals with translation is layered and interesting. Unfortunately, I’m a bit uncomfortable about how Ilsa is treated, especially towards the end of the piece, her perfectionism being labeled as the reason not just for her son’s misery (which I feel is a pretty fair criticism) but for why her husband cheated on her (which I feel is a pretty gross thing to imply). Now, it’s possibly just this character’s opinion, Yakk sympathizing with his father because of how he’s been hurt by his mother. But that it’s the how the story closes it gives it a certain feeling of Truth, and in that it seems to disregard the way that the mother has been hurt, making her into more of a villain trying to crush individual expression, self-centered and narcissistic rather than deeply damaged with her own slew of issues. Which doesn’t excuse the ways that she abuses her son, the way that she does feel the need to be the only voice talking, or her own feeling of superiority over basically everyone. But I just am not super comfortable with the implication that this makes her deserving of being mistreated in turn, especially with deserving of being cheated on because she was essentially too dominating a woman and emasculated her husband. Plus, I feel that the whole anger she feels about language is complicated by the fact that English is a rather colonizing language, a gatekeeping barrier that values itself and casts other languages as inferior and uncivilized. Her point about the erasure about this language isn’t without merit, for all that she seems to have taken it too far, and embraced a commercial model of preservation whose applications are kind of chilling. But it’s still a fascinating look at language and the stress between a “mother tongue” in a nationalist sense and the language that a person is most comfortable with. For Yakk, he works best and thinks more in English, and so the pressure to excel in the more regional language is sharp and interesting. And the whole piece is this close look at the relationship between mother and son, the ways that Yakk is failed, and silenced, and abused. And it’s a wrenching look at family and language, and well worth spending some time with!

“The Translator, at Low Tide” by Vajra Chandrasekera (3981 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story translates poetry for sale in the distant and more affluent places who can afford to publish it. From his city, ruined and mostly absent of people in their “prime” (who left seeking better lives with the promise of bringing their families when they made it there), he spends his time translating and trying to get by, occasionally going to church or to the market but otherwise staying in, especially when things start getting more and more dangerous. The piece is quiet, contemplative, and mourning, the narrator alive and guilty because of it, because of how the world has changed, and his role in that change. It’s haunting and slow, unsettling in a complicated and profound ways.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Climate Change, Islands, Cities, Poetry, Translation, Burning
Review: I love the way the story builds this view of this city, ruined and fallen, this narrator and his job of translated poetry. Because in many ways his story is also a kind of translation (or for me at least the implication is that his language is not English, and so his story being in English is another kind of translation even if the story was originally written in English) that brings this rather haunting vision of this city. Which in some ways speaks to how the narrator lives on the tastes of people who engage in a kind of crisis tourism via art, revealing a place that they can at the same time pity and feel comforted by. For a while, at least, it seems almost like that is possible, that the narrator’s experiences and world are stark but meaningful, his perseverance in the city marked by ruin but also a kind of stoic nobility. As the story moves through, the piece twists that, denying anyone a comfort with what’s happening, a distance from it. This is not a piece that solely tracks the aftermath of disaster, that looks on a perhaps-distant final devastation but finds peace in the present. Instead it draws the readers in and tears them apart, places them in the horror of what is happening, and then damns them, reveals that whatever happens it is no more than is deserved, because everyone complicit in the status quo, everyone not pushing on the hardest terms (revolution, riot) to change the system and root out the corruption and exploitation is guilty of letting it happen. Not that it would be easy. Not that it wasn’t inherited from other generations who could have had an easy time of it. But that change is still possible, and anyone left after not acting will not be innocent, because for all the generations that come next it will truly not be on them that the world is shit. It’s a sharp piece for all that it unfolds softly, but that softness is part of the message for me, the passive narrator no less damned for being passive in the face of the need for immediate action. A wonderful read!


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