Monday, September 21, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #168

Art by Rodion Shaldo
September’s Clarkesworld Magazine is big. Four short stories (1 translated) and three novelettes remind me that this is the longest publication that I cover. And in some ways it’s an almost strange month for the publication, featuring stories that dip more into the fantasy side of things, though with plenty of science or at least mechanical elements that mean that the focus still isn’t really on magic, exactly. The pieces run from historical weird to far future colonization, from intimate stories unfolding in the human mind to conflicts that span countries and beyond. There’s a lot to get to in this issue, so I won’t waste any more time. To the reviews!


“Blue And Blue And Blue And Pink” by Lavie Tidhar (3352 words)

No Spoilers: Giorgio is a pilot working one of the only places where he can still fly--a strange airstrip that runs smuggling missions “across the line.” What the line? Well...the story never really spells that part out, but whatever it is, people can come back a bit...changed. Infected in some way that kills them. And Giorgio is given a particular mission that will take him deeper across the line than usual. The piece is strange, weird in ways that it’s difficult exactly to describe, and full of a creeping dread. in some ways it feels weird for the publication, not being exactly science fiction and leaning on horror elements, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an effective piece of weird horror fiction.
Keywords: Planes, Portals, Contamination, Bargains, Dreams
Review: I really like the central mystery that the story opens up, namely what the line is and what it means for the pilots who risk their lives crossing it. Who risk infection from something that...doesn’t seem quiet right. For Giorgio the mission and the landscape takes on something dreamlike, nightmare-like, because he seems almost to know what’s coming, what’s going to happen, what’s waiting for everyone across the line. For all that, though, he doesn’t balk, doesn’t turn away. There’s something fatalistic about it, doomed in some ways but more like trapped. Trapped in a closed circuit that’s winding down, narrowing, breaking. For me, Giorgio is trapped wanting. Wanting something that lets him feel like he’s breaking free, like he’s rising. The magic of flight seems to be what he’s chasing, why he stays even knowing that it’ll kill him. And the world building is so subtle that it’s hard to say exactly when the story takes place, hard to say where, hard to say a lot. In that uncertainty for me is implied a whole lot of changes that we only touch the border of. The line seems to have something to do with the wars that have been fought recently. A side-effect of them? An invasion from some sort of force, magical or other-worldly, that has been halted? Across the line seems much like Giorgio’s side. Only it’s not. There are...things there, that are freaky as all fuck but that also carry a kind of seductive voice. That offer safety. Nostalgia that never existed. Something that seems desperate, wanting people. And when it gets them...well, the piece is effectively squirmy and the ending is weird and certainly worth spending some time with. A great read!

“What Remains of Maya Sankovy” by G. D. Angier (6443 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a combination, an artificial person with the memories of a human as their root. The narrator’s root belong to a marine biologist, something that sort of comes in handy given that they’re currently on a colonization mission that might be humanity’s last hope. To bring five thousand embryos to a water world where, on a sliver of island, maybe humanity can rebuild and thrive. Except that the trip has cost the lives of most of the human grownups who were cryogenically frozen and the combinations, the artificial people left behind, aren’t quite sure what to make of that. Especially after an accident leads to the realization that the world might be much more dangerous than they thought. It’s a story heavy with hope and an eroding sense of what “should be.” And maybe having to embrace a strange, alien reality of what could be, and how live might look on this brave new world.
Keywords: Colonization, Seas, Transformation, Corals, Parenting
Review: This is a rather haunting story from the start, told by a person who is artificial but no less real. Who in some ways is hiding the extent of their sentience, their person-ness, from everyone because they know that it’s not really expected, that it marks them as different when they’re supposed to be the same as everyone else. Even when individuality is what is lacking in the mission, in the Mothers and Fathers. Even when it might help people come together, they still hide it, find themself changing in other ways, as well, breaking with what they are supposed to do in order to basically follow their heart. Loving their daughter fiercely and individually, not just as the Mothers and Father are supposed to love their children (equally, with some measure of distance). And it seems to make them more a person, gives them more dimension and more personality. The secrets. The selfish but also selfless desires. And all unfolding with a touch of heartbreak, to a chorus of loss and death. The mission is somewhat doomed, it seems, the human grown ups mostly dying off in route to the planet and the rest, save only the now-captain, dying not long after arriving. One of them to a rather terrifying effect of the planet’s coral that transforms people into a part of it. Which is something the colonists never get around to really “solving.” They put up a fence. But they are watching children, and children seem to have a way of getting past those. And it’s gutting how the tragedies all come to a head, how it all leads to this moment where the narrator finds that they are person enough to fall victim to the same affliction that took one of the grownups, that is also taking their daughter. All of them, drawn to the sea, to the coral. All of them separate but a part of something bigger. And finding maybe in that way it’s no different from the old way, from the colony, except here they don’t have to hide, don’t have to deny that they are a person. Here, they are accepted, as unsettling as that is. And it’s a harrowing and complex story, heavy with grief and joy both but coming up in a place where the mission as it was conceived might be doomed. But where maybe there’s a different way anyway. A wonderful read!

“Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City” by Arula Ratnakar (9435 words)

No Spoilers: Told cyclically, this story explores a world that humanity has almost entirely destroyed. But where they have perhaps found a way to survive, by placing most people into a sort of suspended animation where their brains will experience a manufactured reality, where they’ll undergo cycles of programmed life, for as long as it takes the unconscious minds to pilot robot bodies around fixing the planet. The narrator is the AI designed to create the simulations. But even as they work to do that, they develop feelings that they probably weren’t intended to have toward a girl growing up near them, and as the story progresses and twists, drawing in this cycle and the lead-up to the transition of the city into the simulations (called inserts), the desires of the narrator come more clear, and what they’re willing to do to be with the person they love opens a space for the narrator to shape their own future instead of simply curating other those of other people.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousness, Simulations, AIs, Family, Cycles
Review: I really like how the story moves, the vague mystery of it, the sense of repetition and return that moves throughout. The narrator, Opal, is supposed to follow her mission. To keep people in their simulations for as long as it takes the world to heal. But there’s something about that which Opal seems to reject. The idea that it has to end. And I think it’s a sort comment on how people never really considered Opal’s role in all of this, just sort of expecting them to accept, to want to watch over humanity, to keep them in their dreams, and then eventually to wake them. Only they seem to realize that humans might actually want the illusion more than they want the reality they’d be returned to. It’s an elegant solution to the problem, to a lot of problems, really. It gets around that with uploaded consciousnesses there would be a sort of generational build up, increasing numbers of uploaded minds and a smaller and smaller percentage of living people. Here, there are no new living people. There’s just the cycle, on and on, eternal. And while it’s possible that it will run down at some point, that it will break, it’s also possible that it will just...keep going. And for Opal, and for Eesha who wants nothing more than to be with Opal, that’s the risk to take. Knowing that they’ll have to ultimately keep the same cycle going, on and on and on, they choose to do just that, because it keeps them together, and there’s no amount of time that makes that less important. For me a lot of this speaks to the way that a lot of people...I think there’s this idea that simulated realities would get bored after a while. Or would feel wrong. Like they’re taking the wrong message from the Matrix. While here the realities, the simulations, are drawn from what people want, from their desires, and become something that people don’t want to leave, that almost becomes more real than reality, or certainly more desirable than reality. For me, it’s a love story, one that says humanity can just stay plugged in, because they aren’t being hurt and aren’t hurting the world, and for Opal and Eesha, they have this peace together, this love that they get to experience over and over again, forever making and re-affirming the decision to stay together, to be whole. And it’s a wonderful read!

“Certainty” by Isabel Lee (12100 words)

No Spoilers: Jules is the assistant of a researcher at a major university, asked to visit a remote lab that’s involved in...some sort of research. What Jules thought was a business trip, however, turns out to be a little more personal for their boss than they were expecting. And a little more intense for themself. And a little weirder overall. Because the lab is looking to a kind of physics relating to predicting the universe. Rendering it in a code where everything is able to be determined, where nothing is random. It’s a technology that acts a lot like time travel, but it’s missing something, something Jules’ boss might be able to deliver. And it’s a strange, wrenching read about loss and about possibilities. About the tug of the future, of regret, of trauma, and the desire to know what happens next.
Keywords: Time Travel, Science(!), Universities, Libraries, Fate
Review: I really like the feel to the story, the way it builds around the idea that everything might be on a single track, everything ultimately predictable and so, in essence, determined already. From the first moment of creation. It’s a striking idea, and Jules is a little out of their depth when they’re thrown into the middle of this. Into this weekend in this remote lab with the mysterious Director and the lead researcher, Celine. Celine, who seems to leave her mark on them long after that weekend. Who knows all about her own future (apparently) and might know a thing or two about Jules’ as well. And the piece for me is about that power. The good it can do, the way it helps Jules’ boss to find closure, the way he’s able to pull something good from what is a rather traumatic event. But for all that there’s a certain haunted feel to the story, too. A way that seeing everything about the past and future becomes...not exactly impossible. But there’s a weight to it. An awe and a danger of sinking into it. Of being lost to the rush of that river of time, pulled under, annihilated. And I like how that works with Jules’ phobia of water, the way that the Director’s brother was killed in water. The way that all of it sort of loops together, building this sense of danger, of the very real risk of being drowned. But still the urge to go out on that water. It’s strange, and the piece does a great job for me of really getting into how that weekend never really leaves Jules, how it acts as this anchor, this return point, and how it might not be that for only him. There’s a great deal of possibility I feel the story opens, even as the idea of a determined universe seems to close off possibilities. But part of it feels like even if the future is known, it still matters what people choose. Still matters how people feel, and how they reach out to maybe pull each other from the waters when it gets too rough. A fascinating read!

“Ask the Fireflies” by R. P. Sand (8880 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator, a medical AI who has gone through something of an awakening, a breakthrough into sentience, is still all but helpless as they try to communicate to medical staff that the person they are trying to care for, the person they love and want to protect, is alive and perfectly okay following a traumatic injury that has left her in a coma. Where the doctors see an absence of conscious life, though, the narrator, named Podder by the girl, Alshea, know that there is a vibrant mental world...just one that’s been cut off from “reality.” And it’s been done because of the trauma and abuse that Alshea has suffered, the inky shadows that she’s literalized in her fantasy world, in a place that, with the help of Podder, she hopes to be safe. The piece is strange, a mix of fantasy and off-world science fiction, and it’s complex and richly drawn, a story of a limited AI trying to avert tragedy without tools to speak or communicate what’s really going on.
Keywords: CW- Traumatic Injury, CW- Abuse, AIs, Fantasies, Cats
Review: I really like that the reason the narrator can’t really talk with humans, the reason they are trapped trying unsuccessfully to show the doctors that Alshea is fine, is that humans don’t trust AIs following a bunch of them rising up at one point. So they don’t give them tools in case they do...exactly what the narrator has done. Gain sentience. Except the narrator doesn’t want to take over, doesn’t want to go against humans. The narrator instead wants to help one of them, at least. Wants to save the girl who treated them like a friend. Who welcomed them into her fantasy world, where they are a giant furry creature with claws, where their days are idyllic even if sometimes their nights are filled with terror as Alshea’s brain processes the trauma from her abuse, which is visceral without quite spelling out how exactly she was hurt. Her parents are a toxic part of her life, though, and seem intent on being a toxic part of her death as well, as they push to have her declared legally as good as dead so they can euthanize her and get on with their lives. And so the story really isn’t a super cheery one, for all that the fantasy world provides a needed break from the grim realities that the narrator and medical staff are facing. Which is basically the point, that Alshea has done this as a sort of defense mechanism. That she is protecting herself and that only really the narrator can see that, can tell that her mind is still very much alive and alert, but locked behind a partition in an attempt to keep out the Bad Things. And the desperation that the narrator has to stop her death, to prevent her from being destroyed, is wrenching and well told, a nail-biter that teeters on the edge of despair before resolving on something like hope. What comes after is hard to say, but it’s one battle down, at least. A wonderful read!

“Every Plumage, Every Beak” by Nin Harris (5974 words)

No Spoilers: Saengdao and Timah are friends, a Khinnaree and Apsara respectively, and grew up together, Saengdao watching over the more adventurous (and trouble-making) Timah. Now grown, something of that old dynamic still remains, pushing Saengdao to play the part of the parent, the authority figure, the person suing for caution, while Timah wants to go, to experience, to break the rules. When Timah’s thoughtlessness leads to a fight between the two, though, both of them have to decide what they’ll do next when the world’s larger conflicts seem poised to sweep them up. The piece is connected to a larger setting by the author, and in some ways that shows, leaning on a sense of history and continuity that, while not necessary to understand or enjoy this work, does give more context to what’s happening. At its core, though, it’s about a friendship, and in some ways about a friendship breaking because of an act of ignorance and betrayal.
Keywords: Friendship, Flight, History, Laws, War, Engineering
Review: I really like the way the story flows and the relationships it sets up. The strained friendship between Timah and Saengdao, which can’t really survive when Timah shows her thoughtlessness, proposing something that puts Saengdao in a position of servitude that her people were forced into in the past, a slavery that Timah didn’t think about but that none of the Khinnaree ever truly forget about. And I like how that’s handled, the gravity of that moment, and how nothing afterward is the same. For Saengdao, it’s a wake-up call, a chance to move her life away from how she’s always put her own desires second behind Timah. For Timah, though, it’s also a chance to change, to introspect, to see that she’s been neglecting really thinking about a lot of how the past impacts the present, and how her careless attitude is hurting those around her and making her into someoneo she really doesn’t want to be. And I like that she has that moment without making the story about her and her pain at having fucked up, at having caused harm. That is present in Timah’s perspective, but the narrative itself doesn’t center it, instead looking at the larger world and how Saengdao and her sister manage to find something new, to build something new. Not a tool of their own exploitation but an intention that will give them flight, that will give them a new kind of power, importance, and freedom. And in that I really like the way the story sort of pulls back and gives the ending it does, the jump forward in time to show in some ways how things have shaken out. Not that Timah is poor off, but that in many ways she wasn’t the main character, despite her own expectations, despite how a lot of readers might expect her to be the person who does more, goes farther, because she feels more entitled to it. Instead, the story provides a more complex web of elements and intrigues, a conflict that Timah finds herself more on the periphery of, while it’s Saengdao who gets her chance to shine. A great read!

“The Book Reader” by Keishi Kajifune, translated by Toshiya Kamei (1400 words)

No Spoilers: Rumi and Miina are friends, despite being nothing alike. The biggest difference between them, though, isn’t Miina being a tomboy and Rumi being the opposite--it’s that Miina can read books, because Miina is immune to the learning nanobots that all children are injected with to help improve their memories and certain other cognitive abilities while preventing them from accessing certain kinds of media, and trying to stunt their creativity. The piece is brief but focuses on the relationship between Rumi and Miina, and on Rumi’s growing desire to be able to escape the censorship of the nanobots, and what might happen if they were to succeed.
Keywords: Nanobots, Books, Illusions, Censorship, Governments
Review: This story takes the idea of governmental censorship that much further, giving them access to being able to limit access not just to digital media and information, but even analog sources. Books. The nanobots target books, making people unable to visually process them, in order to keep people from becoming imaginative, in order to keep people easier to control. And Rumi sees in Miina something so different from what they’re used to, something they want to be like. More awake, it almost seems like, if also more alone. And I like the commentary on jealousy, the way that it’s played as being something like a human survival instinct, but also is something that the government is trying to control, in making it so that people have essentially the same access, the same education, the same things. People like Miina are a kind of threat because they remind people that there’s more out there. There’s reading books, which might not seem a loss until you see or know that someone is reading them, and that gives it a power. Instills in it a kind of magic, to say nothing of the actual ideas contained in those books. Ideas people don’t even realize they might want. Or need. The story is short and rather focused on censorship and the revolutionary act of trying to break that censorship, the whole world losing its center, its logic, because of what Rumi tries to do to themself to break free. But I think it also touches deeper than that, on the sort of lie that jealousy is the heart of evil, basically. That sometimes it’s not jealousy at all so much as a desire for something better, something that will fit more, that will feel more right, and that’s not something to suppress or deny, but to embrace. A fine read!


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