|Art by Joseph Diaz|
August’s Clarkesworld Magazine brings three short stories and three novelettes that once more explore an array of science fictional ideas and settings. Futures where AIs are involved in war and in scientific research. People dealing with jobs that are killing them, worlds where they are exploited, where they sign up to be exploited in order to escape the crush of poverty and danger. Not all of the stories are easy reads, but many of them are very rewarding, and I’ll get right to the reviews to explain why!
“The Lori” by Fiona Moore (3623 words)
No Spoilers: Cooper is a driver, a man who left behind a probably abusive home situation to join the military, where he’s never really fit in. Except that following a disastrous battle where he was the human driver of a sentient tank (more like the human assistant and fail safe). After the battle, Cooper ended up in the hospital and the tank ended up loose, still fighting some sort of battle, though against who and for what aren’t exactly clear. And Cooper sets out to find the tank, to join back up so that they can do something together, something that might give them both purpose and meaning. It’s a strange piece, loaded with tragedy and hurt, sometimes difficult and complex and haunting but also with a definite power to it.
Keywords: AIs, Tanks, War, Drivers, Dogs
Review: I love the way that the story challenges Cooper, sets him up as someone in many ways enamored with stories of the noble loner. Wanting to be a hero, wanting power, wanting something he’s not even sure of. He sees in the tank a tool, a companion, like a dog who will choose to be with him, who might accept and love him in a way he’s comfortable with. It’s not an equal relationship that he wants, not something where he and the tank would have equal voices. In many ways, that the tank has no voice seems to be a very attractive element, that Cooper sees himself as some sort of tank whisperer, able to interpret the “secret language” of the tank to be able to guide it in a fight that they will wage on their own terms. At the same time, he’s refusing to see so much wrong with that way of thinking, including the racism of thinking that he can fight this battle in a foreign nation he knows almost nothing about. His journey, one he thinks of as empowering, is just a trip through the fantasy of how he sees himself. And it reveals the ugly truths, that he’s killed innocent people, that wanting the power over life and death only confirms that he shouldn’t have it. It’s a difficult read at times, focusing as it does on the atrocities that don’t seem to really register to Cooper or to the tank, the lori. There seems to be a lot here about how violence and care are all messed up in both of them, how sometimes people can be broken and how the fix is not to toss them into a battlefield. And the ending is soft, conclusive without really revealing what Cooper’s plan is from there. Just that he maybe realizes that it can’t be what he was hoping. A fine read!
“Drawing Lines Between the Stars” by Frank Smith (6104 words)
No Spoilers: Bexar (Bex to the rest of the three-person crew) is the engineer on a cargo vessel making its slow way between destinations, pushed past the point of mental and emotional exhaustion by the demands of the job. By the ship comes across a smaller solar sail ship in distress, Bex helps to get it on board and starts making repairs to it. They also start to speak with the pilot of the ship, an airy woman named Adena who is on her way to a sort of gather, a celebration of a planetary alignment and religious/mystical event. And then something goes wrong. The piece deals with the cost of labor, the strain of having to work so much and the pressure of having to in order to avoid even worse exploitation. Bex’s situation is wrenching, fucked up, and all too familiar.
Keywords: Space, Transport, Repairs, Accidents, Employment
Review: I like how the story captures Bex’s position, in a job that they don’t really love, exhausted all the time, expected always to do more and more, to pick up slack where they can, to be a Good Employee over staying healthy. Because only Good Employees get to avoid the grind of poverty that seems to catch just about everyone. Because only Good Employees get to maybe retire with enough to not have to work until they die. And so it all finally catches up with Bex. And yes, their mistake (though not theirs alone) leads to a death and almost their own as well. But in many ways they might have been looking for a way out. Or else it might have just been inevitable, with the stress involved, with the perfection required but not supported. With margins as thin as they are running, any mistake is too large, and so sometimes nothing goes wrong until a lot goes wrong. I like how the story captures that and how for Bex it’s almost an opportunity. A way to cut not just from the ship, which was already cutting them off, but from the entire system. A way to enter into a different world, as foreign as it might seem, as backwards as it might seem, as fragile as it might seem. Because the truth is there is no greater safety or security in what Bex is doing. And as much as they’re doing it for the promise of better later, for the promise of retirement, it might as well be for the promise of heaven as much as they can actually expect to get there. A different lifestyle might seem ridiculous, but it’s only because they’ve internalized the values that people Must Work Always to be Worthy of Rest. When this new way might make them happier now, a far more valuable thing, a far more freeing thing, than they’ve been willing to admit. A great read!
“The Plague” by Yan Leisheng, translated by Andy Dudak (5692 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has the unsavory job of gathering up petrified human remains left behind from a virus that changes people’s bodies into a kind of silicon. Making everyone infected in statues. Despite the grisly nature of his job, though, the narrator actually enjoys what he does. Derives some sort of satisfaction and pleasure from dumping people into the fire and maybe hearing their last scream of terror and pain. Which is rather disturbing. But it also hides a truth that the narrator comes up against, one that will change the way he views his job, and the entire world. It’s not an easy read, not a pleasant read, but there is still something about the story that makes it rather compelling.
Keywords: CW- Viruses, CW- Human incineration, Employment, Secrets, Life, Time, CW- Rape
Review: In many ways this is a difficult story to read for me, and not just because it deals with a virus, with a deadly pandemic. It’s also because the narrator is very comfortable with his job. With throwing bodies into the fire and relishing in their final screams. With killing people who break the rules. And that it’s his journey that we’re focused on, that we follow, it’s a story that I’m not sure I could ever full like, because it’s about his feelings, his complexity with regards to the deaths around him, the true nature of the virus that he doesn’t want to admit but ultimately can’t escape. And it still tackles some important things about the ways that people justify their actions during emergencies. How people don’t want to recognize new life when it’s so different than they are used to. And how time can move on different scales. The way that he moves through his life is interesting, wrenching because even as he comes to accept what’s going on he still feeds people into the fire. Because it’s his routine. And despite that, despite everything, he spends his last efforts trying to embrace a woman who wants nothing to do with him, who does not seem to want his attention. And yet he does it anyway, rather underlining what kind of a person he is on any scale. And I mean despite not liking the story I think it still has a power to it, a kind of stark grace. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the ending, where I’m not sure if the implication is that history is lost at this point and there aren’t too many of these living statues left? I’d figure an advanced civilization would be able to tell these aren’t statues? But whatever the case, it’s a haunting and strange read, and well worth checking out to make up your own minds about.
“An Important Failure” by Rebecca Campbell (9702 words)
No Spoilers: Mason is a luthier, the assistant to one of the last to be trained in Italy and come back to the Pacific Northwest. Mason has a dream of creating a master violin. One that would be at home in the great music halls. That belongs in the hands of a master musician. The challenges to that, though, are intense. Some of them seem downright impossible to overcome. Because the trees used to make the best violins are all gone. Or mostly gone. And the things that Mason has to do to build his violin are not always...cool. The piece looks at the toll it takes on him but also the power of it in the face of the destruction of so much. The loss of so much. It might not ultimately save anything. But it does preserve something precious in a world of increasing scarcity, and there’s beauty and power in that.
Keywords: Climate Change, Music, Violins, Trees, CW- Pandemics
Review: This story really speaks to me of the power of art in the face of the destruction of the planet. Mason’s mission might seem futile. It might be worse than that, because he takes part in the poaching of a tree. Because he steals, because he cannibalizes a different instrument, because he nearly kills himself gathering up the materials he needs. And even as he works the scope of his dream shrinks. From thinking that it will maybe tour the great venues, will be known throughout the world, it...can’t. That world disappears as he’s working on it. But he doesn’t stop. Not just because he doesn’t have anything else. I do feel that could have been the point, that as the possibilities diminish, he holds to them out of stubborn pride. As a way of avoiding really facing the ways that the world is on th decline, as a way of not thinking about and feeling so keenly the loss of all that he had wanted to do, all that he had wanted to contribute. But I don’t think the story ultimately comes down in that direction. I think that the story respects that even in human-driven climate devastation, even when it can be argued that humanity is on a decline, that things are definitely getting worse, that doesn’t mean that human art and craft is futile. It’s still doing something precious, still making something that will bring people comfort, even if it’s not going to be on a global scale. It’s still an act of love and art. Still wonderful and alive. And yes, it cost very limited resources. But they were resources that likely would have been lost anyway. And there is plenty of complication in that, but the result is something that honors the plants that were lost, the wood that went into making this very special instrument. Because sometimes the best to hope for is a kind of relief, a nepenthe, a draught that can be shared, that for at least a moment can help people get outside their pain. And it’s just a beautifully built, slow, careful story about...not the end of the world, exactly. But the end, for now, of a lot. A change, and the important act of preservation on many levels in the face of that. A wonderful read!
“The Immolation of Kev Magee” by L.X. Beckett (11116 words)
No Spoilers: Breeze is an aspiring sim director and current laborer in a place that manufactures ice to try and cool the world’s oceans, to try and reflect sunlight away from the Earth. They’re also not-quite co-parenting an orphan with their friend, Keisha, after it was left with them by a mother who never came back. They’re trying to find a permanent home for the child while also trying to figure their lives out and...it’s a lot. And then they meet Zero, a mysterious woman who starts helping them. Only their help comes with a lot of strange, convenient events. Events that put Breeze right in the lime light. Where they wanted to be. But something’s going on that they can almost feel, something bad. It’s a story of hope and violence, people trying to get by in an imperfect place and the dangers they face because of the injustices rampant in the world.
Keywords: Climate Change, Employment, Family, Child-Raising, Orphans, Assassinations, Non-binary MC
Review: The story builds up a world that is struggling with climate change, with violence, as people are growing more and more desperate, as corporations are becoming more and more powerful and in control of every aspect of life. Individuals don’t really have power, and for Breeze, who cares about doing the right thing, it seems like the whole thing might be a trap designed to consume them. And I mean I love that Breeze is basically a cinnamon roll despite the world they’re living in being this really shitty place. And it’s not lost on me that it comes despite them being incredibly put upon, struggling constantly, dealing with institutional barriers and prejudices. But also comes because they can filter their news, because they can sort of put that level of control on what’s coming in. They can’t really deal with people being negative, not because being positive is...better, or more realistic, but because they need to be able to believe that things might get better. That they’re winning the fight against climate change, against...something. When in reality that level of tunnel vision does sort of leave them open to manipulation. Not just by the employers and such exploiting them and their labor but by people like Zero who see them as a way to get access to their own targets. So on one level it’s an incredibly grim story about the power of positivity being a vehicle for assassination and really not a way out of the problems that are pressing down on all sides. But on another level there is something about the earnest way that Breeze tries that is necessary for the world to survive. If we are to get through, it’s effort like that, belief like that in people, that we can make things better, that will be required. We need people operating in good faith, openly. We just don’t usually get it, and all too often a small group will sort of ruin it for everyone. Here the verdict is still out. Breeze is used, but they’re not cynical yet. They’re still trying, and that, if nothing else, is a kind of hope. And it’s a fun read with some great world building and careful, complex plotting. A wonderful read!
“Nameless He” by Robert Reed (8983 words)
No Spoilers: Inside a Great Ship, an AI referred to as Nameless He investigates the impossible geometries and secrets of a strange ship’s engine that contains...a lot. What exactly, though...isn’t clear. It’s a setting where humans are biologically immortal, where this Great Ship is the greatest treasure of the galaxy, and where there’s...certainly science going on. The perspective of the story is not human, and it doesn’t really unfold on human terms. Nameless He spends all of his resources, his time, investigating the possibilities of the engine, all while the universe outside shifts and changes but largely just goes in circles. And he discovers...something. It’s just that for me personally the setting, the perspective, and the conclusions all remained fairly veiled, dense, murky, and difficult to decipher.
Keywords: AI, Science!, Ships, Research, Mysteries, Engines
Review: It’s possible I’m not remembering a linked story this goes with? Or something? From the start I found it rather difficult to really sink into the narrative, because for me it really takes on the idea of the Intrigue in an admittedly interesting way, but one that I find no real satisfaction in as a reader. The story for me at least features Nameless He studying and testing, over and over again. Learning, and prodding, and adjusting. Around him, the human characters come and go, have their adventures, but that means little for him. For him it’s just the Intrigue. For me, the Intrigue becomes a mystery that only really remains interesting when it’s a mystery. It’s a space that the story, that Names He, moves around. Always questioning, always coming back to. Because that’s how it works. Because certainty really isn’t possible. If there’s an answer to what the Intrigue is, it’s something that might bring no real comfort when it’s revealed. That might really not offer that much in answer. And it’s knowable only really to whoever made the Intrigue, whoever authored it. Everyone else is left guessing. And where they can pull meaning from that, it’s worth pursuing. But Nameless he resists giving anything in the way of judgement, preferring to leave the Intrigue a mystery. Unanswered. Which is what, for me, the story remains. It’s own Intrigue, on a meta level, able to be poked and prodded for meaning. About curiosity maybe. Scientific inquiry. Time and patience. But for me, as the piece resists giving answers, so I resist really coming away with something tangible from it. It means something, or does not. But where Nameless He is devoted to exploring this nebulous space, looking for some answer, I prefer simply to leave it as is, as I don’t have an eternity to devote to the task. I recommend people explore this one on their own, and hope you find more interesting things to take away. Good luck!