Thursday, October 15, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #169

Art by Francesca Resta
It’s another Big issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, with four short stories and three novelettes. And there’s perhaps a theme that runs throughout the pieces, that of family. Explored in some interesting ways, the pieces all seem to circle around what makes a family and what might tear it apart. The stories are not always incredibly happy, many of them unfolding in post-disaster scenarios, but that’s not unusual for the publication, nor is the fact that this is once more an entirely-science-fiction issue. It makes for a lot of possible worlds, a lot of future we’d probably do best to avoid. And it’s just a lot of strong work, so I’ll get right to my reviews!


“Callme and Mink” by Brenda Cooper (4324 words)

No Spoilers: Maria is a trainer of dogs. It’s...not perhaps the same sort of job it was before...whatever happened. The world isn’t quite what it used to be, after all, and Maria lives alone save for her two dogs. In a town that doesn’t have many permanent residents (most who remain are old). It helps that Maria is a robot, that she doesn’t need to eat, though that only goes so far. It’s still not a safe place, and Maria’s skills don’t immediately seem suited to the world as it is. Except that people still need companions, and dogs are useful when the primary occupation is foraging, and dangers lurk in the shadows. And it’s about time for Maria to find a forever home for the young dog she’s been training. The piece is quiet and full of a kind of purpose and longing. The purpose of raising dogs, of finding them families or people who will care for the and love them. The yearning for something hard to put into words, for a home and a community that’s not always on the edge of hunger.
Keywords: Dogs, Robots, Attachment, Training, Family, Post-Disaster(?)
Review: Doggos! I really like how the story finds Maria, how it works, how she keeps going despite the world being such a broken place. I like that there’s no real explanation as to why. Any of a hundred reasons. It’s something of a sad commentary that the piece doesn’t even need to try to hint at what happened. There are treats enough to our way of life that it’s almost easy to imagine it shattering, imagine people moving through the aftermath of it. It’s not incredibly violent or dystopian here, not like Maria has to deal with roving bands of theives. But neither does it seem entirely safe. Instead there is a fragility to everything. A knowledge that the safety net, as muhc as it ever existed, is now completely gone. That people are basically on their own. That means that most people seem to keep the piece, and help people as they can, and live as they can. And it means that the robots sort of need to stay busy or else risk becoming lost in the wash of this new, lonelier world. Maria has to constantly check her memory, keep her mind as lean as posisble, keep maintaining axioms, rules for getting through the world. And a lot of that revolves around the dogs. With having something to do, to feel like she’s making a difference. It speaks to the need for more than just survival. She’s survived whatever chaos led to this. What she needs is hope, and the dogs give her that, give her something to look forward to, to connect to. Gives her a footprint in the world. And it’s a heartwarming read, about community and care and moving forward. About a present that seems pretty grim, and a future that doesn’t promise any better. But through that is a reason to keep going, to keep trying. And it makes for a great read!

“To Set at Twilight In a Land of Reeds” by Natalia Theodoridou (3745 words)

No Spoilers: Dora is making a regular trip out to the countryside to visit a small community of robots, to help with maintenance and repairs of their leader, Margarita. To give her a new skin. To do what can be done. But also to get away from the city and the grief of loss. The work isn’t really a distraction, though, reminding Dora of their past, connecting them to thoughts of a future without their partner, their love, Lena. The piece is quiet and loaded with a grief pressing in from all sides. Away from the city the sky might not be filled with advertising, but that doesn’t mean it’s empty. It’s a wrenching read, one about stories, extinction, and loss.
Keywords: Robots, Repairs, Grief, Queer MC, CW- Suicide
Review: I really like how the story manages to convey the loss Dora feels, the way they have been hollowed out by this. They’re going out to take care of Margarita in part out of a desire to tie up loose ends, it seems to me, to close out a life that now seems too full of silence. And the story manages an interesting world building through that, showing this world of sentient robots, of people starkly divided between city and country, robots who are obsolete finding their options limited, finding themselves dying out and aware enough to see it. The piece looks at the weight of sentience, not just on being able to really conceive of a self but to think about mortality, time, and everything that goes along with it. The Point, as it were. And for many people that’s not a very happy thought. With sentience seems to come things like depression, grief, sorrow. Things that aren’t about immediate pain, but that linger, that poison. For Dora, the loss of their partner is a wound that won’t close, and they seem to be pulling away from the world, from the things that used to give them purpose and a feeling of satisfaction. Because that, too, has been touched by her grief, by her seeing clearer the way that they can’t fix everything, can’t prevent people they care about from growing old, from dying. And it’s the aching core of the piece for them, the story revolving around this space, this hole in their life. They have tried to go on but all that seems to be left is an end. It’s a heavy, complex read, and I love the way it weaves in story, the way it finds these people trying to find warmth in each other but with each person that passes, the warmth is less, and might soon fade entirely. It’s a mournful story, beautiful in the space it reveals but all too real and painful. It’s rather heartbreaking, but it’s also a wonderful read!

“Wandering Rocks” by Gregory Feeley (7582 words)

No Spoilers: Koishi is a student on the Centaur, a ship that seems to house a significant amount of the human population, or at least those spread out around Neptune. But something like three years ago a splinter group escaped the ship and went off to try and live on their own. Now, though, Koishi is being sent to track at least some of them down, aided by a mysterious AI known only as an Entity. His cover is that he’s on a mission to survey one of the moons of Neptune. But he doesn’t even know the full extent of his mission, and as he touches down on the planet, and makes contact with some of the Holdouts, he’s not sure who to believe, or what he’s supposed to do, or whether any of that matters. It’s an interesting story and solar system that the piece reveals, full of unanswered questions and lots of promise for further exploration.
Keywords: Space, Neptune, AIs, Missions, Gravity
Review: This story reads a lot to me like the introduction to a larger work. The elements are all revealed. The ship of humans out around Neptune. The fracture, not just of the humans onboard, but of the Entities as well. So that Koishi’s mission seems to be much less about tracking down the human elements of the Holdouts, but the Entities who have decided not to return to the Centaur. Indeed, the name Holdouts seems more to apply to them rather than to the humans, who aren’t holding out so much as they are trying to break away. It seems more the Entities who are holding out, who are refusing to “come home” to the larger collective. And it’s leading to a conflict that’s sort of putting human against human as well. And through that Koishi is a pawn, acting sort of on automatic. He doesn’t have a lot of agency, and his actions seem to have little impact on what’s happening. Which isn’t exactly a complaint. For me, a lot of the piece has to do with him sort of struggling with the idea of whether what he’s doing matters. If it does, he doesn’t seem too aware of how. If it doesn’t, then what should he do? What can he do? He’s stepped into this situation only to find everything he thought he know thrown into doubt, and it’s a compelling situation, though one that doesn’t get resolution here. Rather, it’s an interesting opening to what I hope is a larger story, because this one doesn’t seem to offer the most satisfying of conclusions. Still, I like the world building and the character work, and am interested to see where it might go next. Indeed!

“You and Whose Army?” by Greg Egan (13070 words)

No Spoilers: Silas, Linus, Caius, and Rufus are all brothers. More than that, though, they are quadruplets who were brought up in a strange tech-religious cult, implanted with neural link sthat allow them to share their memories. It’s a connection that has brought them a sense of closeness regardless of how far away they live from each other. But for Linus, maybe it’s left something to be desired, and when he breaks the link and disappears without a word, it’s up to his brothers to find out what happened, and if he’s in any trouble. The piece is mostly quiet, flitting from brother to brother, building up this complicated portrait of their relationship, how they’ve been shaped by their link, and how the lingering wounds from being part of a cult still fester. It’s a story about family, and maybe about defying expectations.
Keywords: Family, Neural Links, CW- Cults, Investigations, Bargains
Reviews: I like how the story builds up the brothers. Each of them very similar, each of them living essentially with an echo of each sibling in their heads. It’s a strange, almost crowded way to live, but it’s also one that the brothers find...well, that seems to stop them from feeling incredibly lonely. Though it also doesn’t seem to make it easy for them to build relationships outside each other, because they’re all constantly there, because it means they don’t really need anyone else to see to their social needs. And for most of them that’s okay. They live their separate lives but it’s like having each other constantly around, each one able to consult with their mental Silases and Caiuses and Rufuses. And, even when he breaks the link, there’s still the echo of Linus there, as well, though the longer he’s gone, the less accurate he becomes. If he was ever that accurate. And that’s what I feel the story really starts playing with, the idea that someone might be able to hide their true self, even from people within their own heads. Linus is for most of the story an absence, defined by the versions of him inside his brothers. And the picture that creates is...incomplete. Certainly it really doesn’t give them a good idea of why he left. Why he didn’t tell them. They feel betrayed, rocked to their core because in some ways it’s like a part of them all did something they weren’t expecting. The effect is rather shattering, but I love the doors it opens, the ways it sort of pushes all of them into these unexpected directions. And I love that it’s not exactly a betrayal, that Linus is playing a game that no one, not even the person his brother’s are sure is going to exploit and erase him, suspects. Which means he’s probably going to have his way in the end, and maybe then can return to his brothers, but not in the same way, the same driftless way where he didn’t know quite who he was. This way he’ll be his own person, and can make the call then what to do with his life. And it’s a fascinating read, layered and complex and, while I don’t have the greatest feeling of resolution from it, still wrapping up in a way that doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bow. There’s enough to make up your own mind about what happens next, and I think it makes for a fine read!

“Last Wishes” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (11822 words)

No Spoilers: Jinying is an anthropologist, and in some ways the story finds their personal and professional lives melding, because they have been tasked with carrying their mother’s remains and urn to their final resting place. As loaded a journey as that is, it’s made even more complex because the urn is a puzzle, and one they have to solve before they can put their mother’s remains inside and lay it to rest. Also, the transporting of remains across space is pretty illegal, and so she’s taking some serious risks with hiding the remains on her person using black market materials. But tucked into that is a methodical and wrenching story about this relationship between mother and child, between these two people who usually didn’t see eye to eye, but who loved each other deeply. And it offers a satisfying and heartwarming emotional journey through space and time as Jinying explores their memories and their feelings about their mother.
Keywords: Puzzles, Family, CW- Death of a Parent, Urns, Objects, Holograms
Review: I really like the way the story uses the puzzle urn to parallel the way that Jinying has to puzzle out what the loss of their mother really means for them. How to process the grief and loss. How to move forward despite the pain and uncertainty, the desire to live up to their felt obligations. It’s not that they don’t take a lot of risks trying to carry out their mother’s dying wish. And it’s not like their mother didn’t have things she wanted from them. Their mother as a woman was very concerned with appearance, with skin. With objects. Where Jinying has been more concerned with language and with memories, with people. And now that their mother is gone, they are left questioning themself, their decisions. They are in crisis, trying to think what their mother would have wanted. But as long as that’s the only thing they’re thinking about, as long as they’re caught on their memories of their mother, rather than the artifact of the urn, they remain stuck, unable to figure out how to solve the puzzle that will let them deposit their mother’s remains inside. The clock is ticking, too, because they have to bury their mother after 70 days. And I just love how it all comes together, how Jinying has to parse their feelings, their memories. The ways they feel judged by their mother, the ways they feel loved, the ways they feel bereft. And I like that the solution to the puzzle comes in part by mistake. By taking a step that they wouldn’t have, but for the casual calamity a child introduces. And how it opens up this idea that the narrator maybe didn’t full know their mother. That there were some secrets she was keeping. And it’s only when the narrator starts breaking the rules they think their mother would have set that they really make progress in really getting to the heart of their relationship. The ways that their mother was stubborn, aloof, and the ways she was trying to give them space, the ways she cared, the ways she was proud of the person they’d become. And it’s just such a lovely, heartfelt, beautiful experience, a story about honoring the dead and moving forward, and I definitely recommend checking it out. A great read!

“All Living Creation” by Xiu Xinyu, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon (3609 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is the sibling of a woman whose leaked genetic code spawned a surge of clones, clones of every sort, created to be servants, employees--created to be exploited. The narrator has always had mixed feelings about this, cherished memories of their time with their sister as children, and now this...way that their sister has become legion, has become a new servant class. It’s not something that the narrator is comfortable with, and certainly not something the narrator likes, and as the piece progresses it becomes about possession, control, desire, and violence. Which means it’s at times a rather challenging read, grim and complex and messy, though that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to get out of the ways the sister moves through the world, and the reasons why the narrator reacts so strongly to it.
Keywords: Clones, Family, CW- Viruses, Genetic Manipulation, Strikes
Review: The idea that a sibling would become a fad, a legion of clones sent to work in service industries (including sex work) is all kinds of messed up, especially since the narrator seems to have in general some weird issues surrounding their sister. Unresolved things from when they were kids. Where the narrator views her as somehow having been innocent, and now that she has been cloned so many times, they blame her for what’s happened. Despite his own reactions, despite the fact that it seems like he hurts one of the clones, that he might kill one. That he helps to create an entire virus that can wipe out every one of them. The piece seems to me to swirl around ownership, the narrator feeling in some ways betrayed by their sister when it seems that it’s mostly her choice to do what she does. That it doesn’t really have anything to do with the narrator, with any of the family. And yet the narrator treats themself like the judge, declaring to themself if no one else that the sister is at fault for their feelings, for their desires, for their violence. She’s a victim but also condemned, her actions having made her “fair game” for whatever happens--slavery, rape, murder. For me the story looks at the double standards at work when it comes to women making decisions, trying to own their bodies. Because for many, someone thinks that they own it already. It’s a kind of fucked up story, and one that’s fairly uncomfortable at times, but I do like the way it handles this messy relationship. The hate and desire. The affection and disgust. The guilt and shame. The work moves all around that, showing the narrator’s descent into mass murder. A fine read!

“Ashes Under Uricon” by Adrastos Omissi (3564 words)

No Spoilers: Lottie seems alone in all the world. A world that has been devastated by escalating wars that finally climaxed in automation, robotic soldier programmed to kill and kill and kill. Well, they did their job quite well. Now Lottie seems to be one of the few people left, travelling through the wreckage of the world, looking for other survivors. Her journey takes her to a small town, to the drone of an engine. But not really what she was hoping for. The piece is rather short but builds a world full of loss and echoes. Lottie has faced her share of dangers, and she’s cautious, careful, but still fueled by hope. The hope of finding someone. Of not being alone. And it’s an aching, longing read of a broken world, and the potential of humans to build in ways wonderful...and terrible.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Searches, Robots, AIs, Emotions
Review: I love the way the story builds this world where humans have created and deployed the tools of their own destruction. Robots who were programmed to kill and who did just that. Which makes what happens a kind of justice, one might think. Only I think Lottie makes the case that for all the cruelty and prejudice and hate that is behind a lot of what they do, there are things that are beautiful and warm and caring, as well. Lottie finds the evidence of that dotted around the world, in the bones that people have left behind. In her own memories of the boy who she loved, who she had hoped to protect. And the piece also makes an interesting point about the differences between humans and robots, humans and AI. Making a point that some people are no less programmed than AI, that for those who subscribe to the hatreds and the prejudices, that’s basically a programming that is meant to drive action, that is meant to control people by placing these largely false distinctions among humans. And when it comes down to it, people too are sometimes caught in their programming, unwilling or perhaps unable to fully break from it. Which doesn’t excuse their actions, but does add to the tragedy of them, the violence they author, the destruction they participate in. So that now there’s very little left, and Lottie is on this seemingly doomed quest to find a human. Because she was programmed to, sure, but also just because she is lonely. And a person. Wanting to reach out and find some comfort, someone who might understand her, and whom she might understand. It points to the beauty of people, the way they crave love. Which might too be a kind of programming, but one that leads to much better things. More compassion, more peace. And if only people had focused on making more Lotties instead of more Hunters and weapons, what might have been. If only people would prioritize love, what amazing things we might achieve. It’s a fantastic read and lovely way to close out the issue!


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