Monday, June 15, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #165

The June Clarkesworld hits a mid-year stride with five stories (two short stories, two novelettes, and one novella) that bring on different kinds of science fiction, from deep space federation drama to much closer to home terrestrial time travel story. There are multiple takes on future and science fictional systems of governing and organization and how those organizations (ranging from out of control capitalism to a kind of micro-managed religious order) impact the characters, walling them in, making them want to push back against those walls, with sometimes dramatic results. It’s a fantastic issue, and I’ll get right to my reviews!


“The Iridescent Lake” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (7858 words)

No Spoilers: Yunhe is working security on a planet/moon with an ice that defies explanation and most scientific investigation. They work at an ice rink, a public park, basically, but one that’s very sophisticated when it comes to security because the price for ice from the lake is ridiculous. And Yunhe’s role as its protector is somewhat complicated by her side gig as smuggler, taking ice out to be studied and then, after the scientists are done with it, returning it to the lake. When her extracurriculars get a bit...crowded, though, and she stumbles across a secret that ties together the ice and the always fresh wound of having lost her son, things get dangerous and dramatic quickly. The piece has some fun and interesting action to it, all unfolding around a core of loss and grief, and the stark difference between scientific curiosity and naked exploitation.
Keywords: Ice, Space, Security, Theft, Family, Faces
Review: I like how the story shapes itself around the various injustice in the setting, not least of which is the practice of stealing people’s faces, a process that kills whoever’s face is being scanned so that it can be used for legitimate and very much not legitimate reasons as a kind of high tech mask. It’s how Yunhe’s son died, and it’s something they aren’t quite aware that they’re helping until they accidentally get caught up in a different illegal operation than the one they’re actively participating in. And I just like the messy way it’s all working, acknowledging that basically everyone involved is in debt, out of better options, just trying to do what’s right for themself, for their families. Which doesn’t make it right. But there are still choices within that, decisions that can make a difference between ignorantly helping corruption and pain or trying to do better. More, there’s a difference between just stripping out valuable resources that might be self aware and just taking some for study with the requirement that it all be put back. And the action of the piece is great, coming as it does mostly on the ice, people skating and trying to outmaneuver each other without necessarily trying to kill each other. People get hurt, but again there’s that knowledge that even the “bad guys” are likely just desperate and out of options. And it’s all complicated by Yunhe’s past, her son’s death. The wound that won’t heal, especially when it comes out that the reason people want the ice is to help make it easier to take people’s faces. Easier for the gangs involved, mind you, not safer for those targeted. It would allow them to target more people, and once Yunhe finds that out there’s no way she’s letting things go on. It’s a nicely paced and rendered piece, with solid world building and full characters, and I definitely recommend checking it out! A great read!

“How Long the Shadows Cast” by Kenji Yanagawa (11409 words)

No Spoilers: Shun is a linguist on a project that might see him traveling to a distant world, a journey that would take 250 relative years on Earth. For him it might be something of a relief, if it didn’t mean a return to Earth, where he has little but bad memories about losing the love of his life. Except seemingly by chance he runs into a strange woman, one who sparks something in him that he thought was gone. Not everything is what it seems, though, and the story gets a bit metaphysical as Shun discovers who this woman really is, the truth of which will shake everything he thinks he knows about the universe, as well as dredge up things he’s been trying to forget...or suppress. It’s a wrenching story of feelings and souls, all centering a rather flawed man and a bonds that go deeper than life and death.
Keywords: Souls, Space, Time Travel, Reincarnation(?), Love, CW- Suicide, CW- Car Crash
Review: I like the careful way the story goes about setting up what is essentially a rather philosophical story about soulmates and reincarnation. A cycle that Shun has thrown into chaos, that he’s broken by his decision to go into space, taking his soul out of life and death and rebirth, making his soulmate have to go through life missing something. And I like how the story sets up Shun as supposed to be able to understand this, because since the death of his partner he’s struggled hard to find meaning in things. He’s driven by a desire to reach into space, but it’s one he doesn’t seem to care too much about. And really, for me the piece sort of gets at the impulse he has to run away from his soulmate, to try and avoid the cycle that’s supposed to keep him in contact with a person who always fits with him to form a greater whole. Except that something has fucked that up, broken it so that even faced with the prospect of being reunited, Shun feels first the urge to flee. And it’s strange, because in some ways it’s difficult to tell if a part of Shun is unconsciously running from this whole setup. That he is drawn to his “soulmate” but at the same time dislikes the constraints, the way that he doesn’t have complete control over this. Which would explain his urge to go into space, and the way that he turns away from his love when she’s in the car dying. And why, again, he seems to turn away from his love when she asks him to die. It’s a complex look at that, because he’s caught between wanting to flee this intense emotional bond and wanting to be comforted by it. And he can’t make up his mind, is tormented by it. And while the story really offers no resolution to what he decides (if he doesn’t go into space the situation is also “solved” because he’ll die anyway, just later, and the soul will be reborn again so that it can find its match), it serves up a nice question for readers to ponder--what should he do, and what might be do. A fine read!

“Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u” by M. L. Clark (20871 words)

No Spoilers: The Uma’u are just entering into talks with the Partnership, have sent their first group of diplomats to the Partnership space station where they can start to learn about each other, when a terrorist attack kills most of the Uma’u delegations. everyone except Awenato. Who isn’t at all impressed with the way he’s treated by the people of the station, and who suddenly has to navigate not only his own grief and loss, but suspicion from the people of the station and anger that those responsible for the murder of his friends and mate are not going to be brought to the justice he needs. The piece is complex and moving, looking at the ideals of a vast Partnership and the ways that the promise and ideals of democracy and equality often fracture when put into practice and especially where power and oppression come into play. It’s a long read, but also an absolutely wonderful one, and a great further exploration of the setting.
Keywords: Partnership, Loss, Aliens, Space Stations, Languages
Review: I love the setting of the Partnership, which does such an amazing job of complicating the old standard trope of a galactic federation of species and peoples all trying to work together. And I love that it’s not cynical about it. That it’s realistic, yes, in showing how often these ideals that people are very enthusiastic about are much more complicated and nuanced than anyone really likes to think about. But it’s all captured here as this outsider, this cat-person (also cat-people! yassss!) finds himself immediately at odds with the Partnership and how it both treats him and the incident that took killed the delegation. The Partnership here talking a good enough game but assuming from the start a sort of shared values that Awenato really doesn’t share. Not yet, at least, and probably not fully. Because the negotiations and meetings hadn’t begun. So he becomes something of a prisoner, stripped of his power even as the Partnership makes decisions about how to try and punish those who hurt him. He’s voiceless and finds the language difficult and has to deal with microaggression and, later, rather macroaggressions as he struggles to deal with his own emotions while having to be the sole representative of his people, but one without real power or agency because of everything that’s happened. It’s a wonderfully complex read, looking at so many ideas surrounding that core idea that this series always seems to look at, partnership. Both his relationship to his dead partner and his relationship to all of these people who want him to be a part of their system while not really living up to their talk. After all, the Partnership prides itself on being shaped by each member, so that everyone contributes not just to the shape of the government but to its central texts. But for all that this kind of cooperation is supposed to be the case, people take a stance of distrust to Awenato and his people because they suspect some sort of deceit and duplicity, a fact that is a constant irritant and stress even as he’s able to turn it into a tool, as well. And I love the character interactions and the way that Awenato can comment on all the ways the Partnership fails to live up to itself while also being made up of a lot of people earnestly trying. The cast is robust and the conflict is immediate and wrenching and the conclusion hints at so much that I just want more of all of this. It’s an amazingly constructed piece and I continue to be utterly charmed by the way these stories combine humor and deep hurt, interstellar politics and intimate character work, all while challenging democratic and colonial practices and it’s just so good. Do give it a read immediately!

“Optimizing the Path to Enlightenment” by Priya Chand (3137 words)

No Spoilers: Anju lives in a world largely defined by the Jade, a sentient AI network that can monitor everything through receiving towers and chips implanted in everyone. From there, it can micromanage the population, keeping waste to an absolute minimum and allowing people instead to focus on their kharma and dharma. But even under those watchful eyes, there are chances for resistance. For people to waste and indulge in the gaps in the Jade’s net. It’s something that Anju discovers and begins to participate in, but for a purpose all her own, one that might bring her closer to the Jade, or might bring it all crashing down.
Keywords: AIs, Kharma, Religion, Maintenance. Post-Disaster
Review: I like how this story takes on the idea of post-disaster and more specifically surveillance and a kind of “Big Brother” state where the Jade knows all, sees all...kind of. Anju is a believer at least in part because religion has been hard baked into the system, so that it’s not just about the smooth functioning of society or healing after dealing with a world that had been nearly destroyed by pollution and violence. It’s about death and rebirth, about reaching for a release from that cycle. A release that seems to mean one thing, but might be more than anticipated. And it’s interesting to me that the Jade has limitations, perhaps placed on it from the outside, from some programmer, or maybe self-imposed. It’s a vulnerability that can be exploited, that people are already exploited. But Anju is there to fix it, to rejuvenate the net, to make sure that people don’t slide further into hedonism, into sin. It speaks to me of the ideal behind the Jade. Their purpose to maintain a society that allows and encourages people to be their best, to be cared for. Not with some sinister plot in mind, but to try and help people live free of possession and pollution and violence. In that the piece reminds me a bit of _The Dispossessed_ where the system has to be constantly maintained to stop it from sliding back. to stop it from falling into the old patterns of loss. It needs people like Anju who will put in the work, challenging things in as far as she goes against the Jade’s directions to rest, to stay out of things. She acts, but even her resistance is a way of trying to save the system, to know how to stop the destabilizing that is going on. The piece is fascinating and careful, showing a society that might seem dystopian because of the level that the Jade has control over things. But I’m not sure I’m personally convinced that the story condemns this system. Rather, it seems to show the beauty of it, the strength and hope of it. And the ending feels hopeful to me, about the need for active effort to make sure that systems designed for good remain good. A wonderful read!

“Own Goal” by Dennard Dayle (3628 words)

No Spoilers: Leon is in advertising, though they’re a bit distracted at the moment by the recent death of their mother, and the upcoming funeral. Still, they’ve got a job to do, and part of that job is figuring out how to market a new weapon of mass destruction--a project that could be hugely lucrative given the rising tensions and the good possibility of war. Through this, though, Leon stays grounded through journaling, which is how the story is framed, as they observe life on their space colony and deal with what’s happening at work and in their family life. It’s a quiet story for the most part, but that quietude screams about the dangers all around, about the way that war is commodified and exploited, and faceless violence that it leaves in its wake.
Keywords: Advertising, Funerals, Family, Awards, Journals, War
Review: I love how the story takes on such big issues in such a careful and subtle way. Or, I mean, maybe subtle isn’t exactly the right word, because the narrator is advertising a weapon of mass destruction that ends up being used against their home. But in the execution of that, the story is so understated, the narrator so generally unconcerned while being obviously concerned. But it’s a journal, and the details that the narrator chooses to put in the journal slowly build this picture of, well, of normalcy. Just a person dealing with the loss of a parent, not really being comfortable letting down their defenses, having to navigate the microaggressions and systemic issues that still, even in this far future, mark them in ways so that their boss makes assumptions about them, their co-workers treat them a certain way it’s hard to describe but that is captured so well here. The way that the story inches along, the narrator distracted but still doing their job, still participating in this system while beginning to feel less easy about it. But their decision in the face of the growing threat of war is to check out from the news, to isolate themself from knowing what’s all going on. Which is perhaps a very understandable thing, because it can get too much. But part of me feels like what they’re doing is more to distance themself from thinking about how they’re helping the war spread, how they’re helping to make it more deadly, more toxic. And in ignoring that they basically open the door for what happens to happen, even as they obviously don’t really enjoy it or believe in it. They help because they don’t seem to have an option to help, participate because they need a job and this one pays and they’re good at it. And then the sad takeaway is that when that happens these kinds of endings, the destruction and loss, becomes inevitable. It’s a tragedy but a numb one, a commentary on the ways that people tune out things they need to take action about, so that when it comes their time in front of the firing squad, they don’t see what’s happening until it’s too late. It’s a complex and wonderful read and a great way to close out the issue!


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