Monday, July 20, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #166

Art by Yigit Koroglu

The latest issue of Clarkesworld is out and it’s a big one, with five short stories, a novelette, and a novella to enjoy. As always, the stories have a distinct science fiction bend to them, but with touches of fantasy and horror mixed into the sci-fi as well. More than that, many of the stories are about isolation and intense relationships, the people caught in ways, pulled toward loneliness and directionlessness, trying to find ways forward, trying to find where they belong and what their lives will look like. Not all of them find happy endings. Many of them find that their choices are extremely limited to factors in and outside of their control. Whatever their outcomes, though, the journeys are at turns beautiful and terrifying, and worth checking out. To the reviews!


“Artificial People” by Michael Swanwick (4001 words)

No Spoilers: Raphael is an artificial person, designed for nebulous commercial reasons and activated on an off as their creators work out what they think might be the kinks in their personality. Like how they love people, and how they want to steer their own destiny. How their grieve and how they feel. The piece unfolds in a time when artificial people aren’t incredibly uncommon, and as the piece moves more of a feeling for how people view and treat those artificial people is explored, in the fear and the exploitation, yes, but also the love and the friendship as well. And through Raphael the reaction to humanity is also explored, the judgment on the scales of an outside party weighing the sins of humans against the ideals of peace and harmony.
Keywords: AIs, Love, Imprinting, War, Purpose, CW- Suicidal Ideation
Review: I really like the voice of this story, the way that Raphael is bright and full of love, how they struggle with that in the face of human insecurities and inconsistencies, but how through all of that their desire to live and to reach out in love isn’t destroyed. It’s strained, yes, and I appreciate how the story handles that, bringing Raphael to a great many time when they feel that they might not want to live. Where the despair feels too much, the pain too great to continue. When they lose the people they love. When they are made to fight in war. When they are confronted by the selfishness and shallowness of one of their creators. Through all of that the patterns seem to be there that artificial people are never going to really be accepted. That what might be best is to fight for himself, for those like him, treating humans like the enemy, because they are certainly threats. But as much as they contemplate whether that might be the way to go, I love that the piece has more to say than that. Rather than embrace cynicism and destruction, it embraces the logic of effortful existing. Of coming to terms with the fact that there is easy answer, and that existing in any sort of decent way means making no short cuts to get around that people are complex, and require care and conscious decision making to interact with. It’s not as easy at it might be, but it’s the only way to work for the world that they’d like to live in, a world with both humans and artificial people. And it’s a lovely statement captured in this moving way. Inhuman, perhaps, but no less working through the responsibilities that are on every person to live and coexist and reach for a future where the love and joy can outweigh the exploitation and pain. A great read!

"One Time, a Reluctant Traveler” by A. T. Greenblatt (5798 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story was raised on stories of people traveling up a cursed path to an impossible lake on the top of the mountain. Where they can leave the ashes of their lost loved ones and drink of the impossible waters and...well, the stories don’t really have happy endings. Sometimes the people make it to the top of the mountain, but often times they don’t. And, drawn by the gravity of those stories and their own grief following the deaths of their parents, the narrator sets out to make some stories of their own, hoping not to fall into the tragedy of the ones they’ve heard. The piece is strange and haunting, twisting nicely around loss and grief and stories, and through the grim atmosphere it finds something beautiful and hopeful to take back from a perilous journey.
Keywords: Paths, Bikes, Robots, Ashes, Loss, Stories
Review: The stories is all about this quest, this story, this pattern that the narrator is falling into. The one that they’ve heard from their parents again and again. Of people touched by grief who go up to the lake and come back, who survive but who don’t really “get better.” And for me that’s so much of the story. About how these people sort of go up to the mountain because they’re hurting, because they’ve lose so much, and the drinking of the water feels like it might help them heal, help them forget. Like drinking from the Lethe, like washing away the past. But it doesn’t. Not in the stories, and not for the narrator. But it does do something. It does get them out of the rut they were in, out of the stagnation, out of the inability to act. It doesn’t heal everything, but it marks them in a different way as a survivor. More profoundly perhaps than just having survived where all these other people have not. And as a survivor of the cursed path, they find it in them to keep going, to re-enter the world and start to build again. Not to forget, or to heal, but to not only be defined by the past. The past, which becomes a story they can tell in part to exorcise its power over them, to make the grief a little lighter maybe. And I just like the way it unfolds, that the narrator loves fixing things and that, too, feeds into their story, into how they approach it. Because some things can’t be fixed. They have to be lived with, have to be survived. But that they also get to define what that means. That just because the other stories about the path and the lake end with tragedy doesn’t mean their’s has to, as well. They get to write their own ending, their own story, their own life and all its twists and turns. And just because it’s been defined by tragedy doesn’t mean that’s their destination. They seem to realize that, and point themself in a new direction, and it’s a hopeful and beautiful turn and just a fun piece and wonderful read!

“Three Stories Conjured from Nothing” by Shakespace, translated by Andy Dudak (7404 words)

No Spoilers: The three stories within the large frame of this long short story weave through different perspectives and, perhaps, much different scales. The first looks within a complex machine, where one piece develops a change that might spell ruin for a much bigger whole. The second finds beings inside some sort of hollow world dealing with a strange and mysterious change to their inner sun. And the last draws things out to the size of universes, where consciousness made up of the entire universe have a conversation stretching billions of years, and come to a sort of understanding. Together the piece come together to form something big and strange, a statement perhaps on perception and communication, time and change.
Keywords: Machines, Suns, Wings, Stars, Communication
Review: This is a rather weird story, and in some ways the piece seems liked by a matter of perspective. The first story features a being Alpha Prime, who wants to live, who mutated away from his primary function and doesn’t want to die. But in so seeking he ends up maybe darkening the sun in the second story, which in turn pushes the astronomers and king of the second story to take action to try and save themselves. Which works into the last story as the planet that contains all of that might impact the eye of the universe serpent, a being whose body represents the totality of what this universe, at least. And that impact might cause a blink that in turn creates a crossing of dimensions, which in turn leads to some big movements. In each piece, the catalyst for change is random, small. A merging of two sphere. A tiny blotch on the sun. A speck of dust. And yet the results of these are big, shattering, completely changing the environments and systems that they took place in. The title of the story then gives these events context, claiming that they arise from nothing, when the truth is a matter of how you look at it. This tiny random act at the beginning of the first act is replicated in the third, each action looping, the serpent eating its tail. The whole story rotates, collides with itself, causes itself. Arises not out of nothing exactly but in a seamless stream that doesn’t have a beginning or end except for the arbitrary one imposed by the narrative structure. The tiniest action causes the hugest change, which gives rise to the idea that no action is small, no change insignificant because of the role they play in this great loop. It’s a puzzle of a story but a fun and interesting one, each iteration of the cycle strange and wonderful and definitely worth checking out. A great read!

“Power to Yield” by Bogi Takács (20135 words)

No Spoilers: Eren is a planet first colonized by a human empire and then taken by a resistance to that empire. A rebellion that created a new order made up of the people who were largely exploited and exterminated by the empire. The Undesirables and the Seer, people with cognotypes and abilities that made them less than full citizens, though they weren’t the only ones who fought and found freedom. Oyārun is a young woman born on this world, who is reaching the age when she has to specialize in something, when she has to decide What To Do. Only she’s not drawn to anything that seems practical until she gets a special interest in a figure from the war. A scientist and surgeon who was also a noble of the empire, who renounced that and helped to pave a way for Eren to be more than a planet but a people. And it opens some strange and sometimes frightening avenues for Oyārun as she meets this man, Aramīn, and discovers what it is he does. The piece is laced with pain and with the fractured lines of a people stitched together from trauma and systemic abuse, who come together out of necessity and the need for freedom to make something powerful and beautiful.
Keywords: Space, Telepathy, Aromantic MC, Asexual MC, Pain
Review: I really like the way the story focuses on how this place, this planet, comes together. Not only from the diverse group of rebels and revolutionaries who fought in the war, but on a planet that was discarded by the empire, deemed too dangerous despite the potential of its resources. And now it’s home to so many living rather precariously, without a lot of resources and needing to work so hard just to keep what they have. In that world, Oyārun is stuck wanting, needing to do something and yet directionless until she stumbles across a recording of a speech made shortly after the war. A speech that kindles something in her that might be more than a special interest. And certainly through that she finds a purpose and a way of doing something that is both vital to the planet and personally fulfilling. And it comes through submission, through becoming a kind of living conduit of power that allows for the planet to endure and the people to survive. At a cost, though. And the piece very much looks at the intricacies of consent, especially when people are involved who don’t fully understand what they’re getting into, especially when the things they are getting into really can’t be understood from the outside. And I love how that works, the ways the story builds and breaks consent, recognizing that consent can cover things where the person is not in control at all, where the person is in too much pain, where their prior consent has to at times be leveraged against them, their body, their pain, in order to do what they want. In order to transcend in the ways they want, to reach a place they can get to no other way. And the piece looks at the tragedy and beauty and hope of how that works in this setting, where these young people are burning out for their people, for their home, and for the feelings it allows them access to. The relationship between Oyārun and Aramīn is so wonderfully drawn, too, non-sexual and non-romantic and messy as all hell but still with this wonderful quality to it as they push and pull at each other, as they try to do what’s right, which is muddied by their reality, by the war, by the nature of their planet, by everything. There’s nothing simple about the piece, nor the situation but for the clarity that the pain can bring, the way it can wash everything else away momentarily. And it’s a lovely, rending ready that I definitely recommend people check out immediately!

“Strange Comfort” by Tegan Moore (8203 words)

No Spoilers: Jens is a musician working deep under the ice of Europa, part of a skeleton crew overseeing a biological worm that helped the company they work for mine a thermal vent for materials. He’s supposed to be reaching the end of his shift, and along with his best friend, Elena, he’s set to leave. That’s not exactly in the cards, though, as a horrible accident leaves Jens alone and with dwindling options. Worse, his greatest fear, the worm he’s supposed to be overseeing, seems to be acting strangely, and the company he works for has decided now is a good time to restructure. Which leaves Jens with his terror and his grief and the dark sea that’s not nearly as empty as he’s like. it’s a creepy, atmospheric story, a sci-fi horror that unsettles and challenges.
Keywords: Space, Employment, Friendship, Loss, Worms, Seas, Uploaded Consciousnesses
Review: This is a creepy piece with a wonderful voice. Jenz is compelling and neurotic, a bundle of nerves who is...who was balanced by Elena. He assures the reader that he was never imaginative, but part of that isn’t exactly true. Because his fear and his art show that he has an imagination. It’s more that the setting doesn’t really reward imagination. He’s doing a job where he’s valued as a body and little else. He’s set into a dangerous situation because it’s required, but really he doesn’t do anything. And there’s the feeling that the whole solar system is like that, where capitalism has twisted even the expansion of people into space, everyone more or less trapped because they need the job, need the money, and otherwise try to fill their time with things that they like. So for me it’s not that he lacks imagination, it’s that his imagination has always been aimed in ways that make it...not important. He can’t prioritize the things he likes, the ways that he’s creative. He has to be a drone first, so he’s a drone first. But his imagination is still powerful, and the more time he spends inside the waters of Europa, the more it flexes, sparked by Elena and her wonder at the things around them. It’s her passion that seems to wake him, and her loss that shakes him out of his own slump, his own reliance on inertia above all else to carry him forward. With Elena gone, he has to face his imagination, and finds the fears that he’s been ignoring. The fear that the system doesn’t care about him, that it will kill him. That that’s the feature, not the bug. Which is something that most people have to try and ignore, if they can, because there is no easy way around it. No safe way of escaping the traps of employment and money. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t an escape, and I love how the piece shows just how creative and imaginative Jens can be in finding his own way, rejecting the escape ladder that the company offers him because he can see the ways he’ll just be squeezed further. It’s an at-times difficult read, horrifying and tense, but it’s also a lot of fun, with a charming voice and great, shattering ending. A great read!

“The Oddish Gesture of Humans” by Gabriel Calácia (1893 words)

No Spoilers: Ier and Hiimar are studying humanity through its artifacts, through a cataloging and analysis of what they can recover from humanity. But they’re lacking a lot to contextualize what they’re seeing. And for Ier, one picture in particular is vexing, and arrests his attention, making him spend long hours wondering at its significance. For Hiimar, it’s less important, but it’s difficult not to be drawn into thinking about it. So the two discuss what it might mean, the gesture that the photograph captures, and through talking about it might come to a better understanding of humanity, and about themselves. It’s a short and cute story, one that takes the classic trope of finding aliens studying humanity’s strangeness, and goes in a nice direction.
Keywords: Photographs, Research, Anthropology, Relationships, Kissing
Review: I like how the story builds around this picture and around this relationship between Ier and Hiimar, who are apparently the only two oceanographers of their people. More than that, though, they are very close because prejudice set them apart for a long time, something that’s much more uncommon with their people, who seem to be more communal--who seem to socialize in large groups. And I like how the act on the picture isn’t exactly clarified, though it seems to me it must be a kiss. It’s something that Ier is struck by I feel because of his loneliness growing up, because of his rather singular interest and love he shares with Hiimar. Not necessarily a human romantic love, but a love all the same, and one that just the two of them share. It allows him to more deeply understand the picture, to understand why people might do something like that. It’s framed as a kind of personal epiphany, a way of relating to his subject matter in ways that he hadn’t previously, drawing a parallel, a link between himself and humans. And, I mean, part of it is just fun and charming and a little silly, because it’s a bit of a leap to say that just because two people are kissing they are sharing this thing only between the two of them. More than two can kiss, or people can take turns kissing, or any number of things, really, so scientifically speaking I’m not sure his logic holds. But by feeling it certainly speaks to him, and I think he sees the focus on two people so keenly because of his own feelings, because of his own situation with Hiimar. Being victim just for a while of inserting his own desires through the lens of research, though the nod seems to be that he’s right, as most humans reading the story probably have something of an understanding of what a kiss is and means. And I mean I like the meta turn of the trope as well, the way we the reader are interpreting through the lens of the story the alien characters while those characters are essentially trying to interpret through the lens of the nested text of the picture. It’s a strange but fun piece, and a fine read!

“The House That Leapt into Forever” by Beth Goder (1126 words)

No Spoilers: A house lives alone on a moon. Or, well, not exactly alone. He has cleaning bots to take care of the various rooms. And he has Doom-Has-Come, a being who he’s been taking care of for some time. A being who needs to eat, and who has gone through all the stored food the house had. Now she’s hungry, and the house starts going in search of more food. But will he be able to find it on this barren moon? And if he doesn’t, what then? The piece has a certain brightness to it, the house seemingly rather lonely and rather chipper. But that covers something dark, something that house is suppressing, and that might have some very chilling implications about what he decides to do.
Keywords: Moons, Supplies, Cleaning, AI, Ships, Prisons
Review: I love how the story starts off as rather bright, the house sort of just enjoying the tranquility of the status quo. There is something off from the start, though, and not just because the only living occupant of the house is named Doom-Has-Come. Rather, it’s the hints that something happened. Something that the house doesn’t want to think about. Something that has a lot to do with why only one room of the house is being used, and the rest are empty. The rest, which are not suited to Doom-Has-Come at all. And the piece has such a nice turn into horror, revealing that through the house’s desire to help Doom-Has-Come, who has become his only friend, his only companion, he might be, well, spreading a doom that he was meant to contain. That the reason he’s alone on this moon is because his crew died making it so that Doom-Has-Come couldn’t get to other worlds. Could destroy everything. Of course, that’s just one possibility, and the piece ends on what might be hope, given that maybe things will be different, the house helping to reform Doom-Has-Come even as the rather grim implication might be that the influence has gone the other way. That the house has been influenced by the isolation and the desperation to not be alone to do something that will have some dire consequences. Consequences that go against the wishes of his former crew. But then, they’re gone, and Doom-Has-Come is still there. And this might be the start of an adventure. Or something like that. A wonderful way to close out the issue!


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