Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #171

Art by Claudio Pilia
About six years ago, the first review to appear on Quick Sip Reviews covered Clarkeworld #100. Now, I’m covering Clarkesworld #171. So…it’s something of a moment for me. The issue brings the normal focus on science fiction, but also manages to weave a theme of home throughout the seven original stories. Home is something that means very different things to different people, and the works explore those definitions, those ideas, those realities through the lens of fiction. It’s not the happiest of issues (which I note only to say that if the publication wanted more happy submissions I’d recommend first publishing happier works) but a rather hauntingly beautiful bunch of stories. To the reviews!


“The Island of Misfit Toys” by Fiona Moore (2953 words)

No Spoilers: This story centers a man named Santa, known that way because it’s easy shorthand for the homeless guy with the big white beard and the gut. A fact that doesn’t really make him less harassed, less target--indeed, it seems to make him more of one, and following a vicious beating he receives one day from a group of teens, he ends up at a kind of trash collection site where he finds (or rather, is found by) a bunch of abandoned and discarded intelligent Things. And, because of his background in programming, he gets an idea. And over time he hatches a plan. For himself, and for the rest of the misfit toys. It’s a difficult story in some ways because it does include some brutal things. But against that brutality is a story of a man finding where he can belong and making a home and a family that can protect themselves from the sharp and obliterating edges of the world.
Keywords: Santa, AIs, Robots, Trash, Homelessness, CW- Assault/Beatings
Review: I like the way the story so resembles a myth. There really isn’t dialogue, or much of it. It’s like a children’s picture book, but one that doesn’t gloss over the difficult aspects of The Spirit of the Season. It doesn’t brush away the dirt or claim to a kind of “cleanness” that so many Christmas stories cling to. And in that way the story plays out a lot like a fairy tale, grim and shadowed at times, a Christmas experience that sneaks in a lot of uglier elements (the beating particularly, and the general cruelty that Santa faces) while still keeping some magic and...not innocence really but hope and joy. At the same time, it still keeps this very limited to Santa and his isolation and loneliness and journey. There’s no mention of other homeless humans, any sort of community, and it makes sense given the nature of the story, the way that Santa is isolated by his circumstances, but it also seems a little strange, given everything, that he wouldn’t interact in any positive way with any other humans, and that there wouldn’t be a sense of building something wider than just this one man and this group of toys. But that’s a fairly small element and again, explained at least in part because this is more fairy tale than statement on the realities of homelessness. He makes it work, and finds a way to build his own community, not of humans but of AIs who have been similarly brutalized and abandoned. And I like how he does that, how he finds this happy ending, walking out of the physical world as he walks out of the story itself, disappearing once he finds that sleigh and moves onto the island. He becomes a myth, a legend. A spot of magic and warmth and care in what is often a harsh and unforgiving world. It’s not a happy story. It’s a difficult and wrenching story about isolation and discarded people, be they flesh or circuit. But it it’s a story that finds some warmth in that, some hope in that. That not all the magic in the world is lost. That one person can make a difference, for themself, and for others, even as the world seems a cold and lonely place. A fantastic read!

“Things That Happen When You Date Your Ex’s Accidentally Restored Backup from Before the Divorce” by Lisa Nohealani Morton (4422 words)

No Spoilers: this story unfolds around the relationship between the narrator and...a clone of their ex, made by accident and containing none of their memories of the divorce between the narrator and their...originator. For the narrator, it becomes something of a second chance, something complicated and messy and kinda fucked up. Not because the narrator and their ex broke up because cheating, mind (something the story plays with a bit, I feel, at the beginning). No, the situation is much more interesting than that, dealing with a nation-wide resistance to a police state with organized cells and an escalating violence that threatens to tear everything and everyone apart. The piece is kinda fun except for the way it seems to dance with tragedy before diving into a shattering, if not entirely bleak, conclusion.
Keywords: Relationships, Clones, Resistance, CW- Police Violence/Guns/Death, Second Chances
Review: I love the way the story gradually reveals the world and the huge issues going no in it. Subtle at first (well, as subtle as having bombings happening in the background of the story), but then growing more and more obvious as the reason for the narrator and their ex breaking up is explored and revealed to be about their work in the resistance, the ex getting out because of an unknown tragedy, becoming centrist, losing connections to the narrator. And the narrator, always aware of that, always sort of playing through the possibilities, using the past as a kind of map forward but trying to steer in a different, better direction. And it works. For the most part. And it’s beautiful and I love where the story takes the characters and their relationship. Their love and their pain and the way that, when they go through it all together, they make it work. Except, of course, the piece is aiming for tragedy from the start and I spent a solid half the story bracing for the impact that happens and I still wasn’t ready for the way it just fucking hurts. It’s a gutting moment and so messy because of how this partner isn’t the ex, wasn’t the “original” and yet became the...the “right” version of the person to the narrator. That this loss is more profound and more devastating than if they had lost their ex because the ex and the partner are different people, or different versions of the same person, and the one who dies, who is murdered, is the one that could work with the narrator. Who could stay. Except that they can’t, and don’t. Not physically. Though the story does look at the ways that person still does stay. Becomes a source of strength for the narrator. And how there’s still hope. In the work and in the world that the partner gave their life for. It’s a hard story at times, moving and lovely as much as it is also brutal and unrelenting. A great read!

“The Last Days of Old Night” by Michael Swanwick (7153 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a kind of creation myth, the story follows first three brothers with enormous powers to create and destroy, and a woman they capriciously create. A woman who quickly learns that if she is to survive, she has to be clever. More clever than the god-like brothers who know that the end of their world is coming, and who want more than anything to hold onto their power. The piece is strange and magical, mythic in the way that power works, and the way that the woman, Mischling, is able to reach for something better than the corrupt and arbitrary power of gods who lack wisdom.
Keywords: Brothers, Powers, Transformations, Truths, Myths
Review: I like how so much of the story comes down to power, and the power of words. Especially with myths, there is a sense that by saying them, by weaving the story, it becomes a reality. An explanation. A history. And the power of the brothers is similar, that they can see a thing in their mind and speak it into being. It’s a terrifying amount of power, especially because the brothers and their power have never had to be temperate, never needed to be moderate. Their power has never been really tested, so it’s in this raw, brutal form, carrying the brothers from whim to whim but otherwise not really restrained or focused. Mischling, on the other hand, begins life as a mouse, and knows what it’s like to be afraid, and to be powerless. And then she gets a taste of power of her own, the power to speak things into reality. Not as profound as the brothers’ power, but an echo of it. A shadow of it. And she does use it, and in part she uses it capriciously, to have things that were taken from her, to bring her comfort and love that she was never allowed. The difference being she knows it’s wrong, even as she can’t seem to stop. At the least, though, she also works to try and protect the people around her, to set things up so that the brothers won’t be able to escape this world and enter a new one. She learns a kind of wisdom, even if she does so by making mistakes, by crossing lines. It helps her to understand the power and, ultimately, gives her the tools to use that power responsibly and well. And I like how the story frames it all, wrapping it into an actual bit of myth, placing it in context of a place and time, claiming that truth and reality by saying it, by putting it down. A fine read!

“Conversations in the Dark” by Robert Reed (13597 words)

No Spoilers: This is a strange story that follows life on a Great Ship on which a planet’s worth of people live and fight and try to have some semblance of order. In a time when bodily decay has been defeated, rendering most people virtually immortal, what’s left are the intrigues and the plots, a large one of which drops in the laps of the Ship’s most powerful people, who decide to tap a resource who hasn’t known that they’ve been at the heart of something labyrinthine and dangerous as long as they’ve been a soldier. It’s a story that revolves around conversations, for all the implications of those talks reach far and wide. And it speaks to a kind of web of conspiracies and a soldier, in the middle of it, suddenly having to decide which way to go, what direction to take to steer out of them, or deeper in.
Keywords: Spaceships, Sensory Deprivation, Conversations, Bodies, Conspiracies
Review: This story feels part of a larger story, that of this Great Ship and its history. Of humanity stumbling into this lucky break that, it turns out, maybe wasn’t that lucky. Because it capturing this enormous derelict from beyond the stars it might have stepped into something much large than them. And I like the layers the story manages to through, the plots within plots, all the moving parts moving at once and the poor soldier who finds themself a pawn of...everyone. Having to pcik their way forward, make up their own mind, try to unravel what they can and keep raveled those things they don’t want to come undone. The Story looks at darkness and sensation, truth and great truths, always walking this line between transparency and conspiracy that is interesting and clouded by what might remain hidden, in the darkness. The potential for...anything. And I mean for all that I do wish I had more of an understanding of what was going on. The piece is long and yet for that the world build is still largely obscured. The different peoples on the ship, the hierarchy, the conflicts, they are all happening in a way that feels natural but without a whole lot of context. I’m guessing this isn’t the only story in this setting, or at least the piece has that feel to it for me, so it’s possible it’s just a matter of going back and finding those. But while I like the story and like the implications of the ending, it doesn’t exactly have a feeling of...completeness to it. It’s an in-between kind of story, and I like it for that, though it makes coming away with definite conclusions difficult. Which maybe is the point, given the mysteries the story plays with. A fine read!

“No Way Back” by Chi Hui, translated by John Chu (7134 words)

No Spoilers: Xuejiao is a Master Hacker, one of a select few who can navigate the abysses of the net, the deep places where the real data is stored and where Sea Spiders, monsters of human consciousness and AI twisted and grown from the uploaded consciousnesses of people escaping their bodies, grow and wait for the time when they can return to a body, though almost assuredly not the one they originally left. Xuejiao moves around a lot, always a step ahead of the government or anyone else tracking her down. Which makes it a surprise when a university professor shows up at her door. His job is both complicated and simple, and takes Xuejiao down some avenues she wasn’t expecting to go. it’s a deep and complex read, fun and charming at times but also emotionally resonating and bracing.
Keywords: Bodies, Uploaded Consciousnesses, Family, Cats, AIs
Review: This story is something of a maze, something of a surprise, a study in masks and the desires to both leave, and return, home. Xuejiao is contacted at first it seems because she’s a Master Hacker, because she has skills that can help a man find the uploaded consciousness of his daughter. But all the while she also has a secret, something that underlies so much of who she is and what she’s done. The story sets up these Sea Spiders as dangers to the net, hungry presences that the governments considers the utmost threat. And indeed they seem dangerous, especially to those who would decide to upload. They wait and decompile, devouring fresh consciousnesses on the net, growing in power and influence. Xuejiao is cautious of them, but it’s not just because she’s a seasoned citizen of the net. It’s because that’s who she was, too, and her own body isn’t quite as originally hers as it might have seemed. It’s a profound moment of the story, the reveal, and I love what it does, the space it opens up, the way it makes her a stranger to her family who she left, made it so that in many ways she can’t go home again. She has her cat, and her work, and her guilt. And it’s a beautiful look at the complex nature of home, the ways that pressures can push people to their breaking point and beyond, the ways they can seek to get away, and the hungry shadows they can find there, surviving by luck as much as skill and determination. Doing things that she’s not exactly proud of and living in the shadow of that. But still living, still reaching for a kind of happiness and fulfillment. And I just love the relationship between the narrator and her cat, another body thief but a different kind, and it’s all just a fascinating and carefully constructed story, surprising but also making complete sense, and I love it. A wonderful read!

“Forward Momentum and a Parallel Toss” by Anamaria Curtis (4961 words)

No Spoilers: Lacey is the coach for a high school robot marching band. Which is to say, a group of students who design, build, maintain, and choreograph a marching band made of non-sentient robots. Lacey’s also something of a fringe figure when it comes to attacking tech IP in order to help the farmers of her small Illinois town get out from the exploitation and debt owed to the local agri tech business, JM. And in the midst of that she’s still dealing with her feeling surrounding her old best friend, a man who now works for JM, who comes to warn her that her clandestine assistance has been noticed and will not be tolerated. The story looks at the different ways people deal with small town traps concerning farming, debt, and opportunity, and how Lacey at least isn’t willing to go with the flow, even when it means taking big risks.
Keywords: Robots, Employment, Corporations, School, Band
Review: I love the way this story captures the very complicated relationships people can develop with their home towns, especially when those towns are small and lack a lot of opportunities. When people seem locked in the cycle of exploitation that has been going on for a long time. Lacey had her chance to get out and in some ways she did, for a time, getting into tech and perhaps only returning when she can sort of failed to make it big. Which would explain why she’s back in a tiny town in rural Illinois with a bunch of tech and a plan to maybe do something about the local agri giant that has been strangling farmers for generations. It’s something she planned with a friend when she was younger, their idealism something that they could bond over. But their lives went in different directions, hers to the risks of trying, his to the relative safety of staying wtih the familiar, even if he hated it. And now they find themselves on opposite sides of a coming battle, an ongoing war, between what’s legal, what the agri tech business has managed to protect in court regarding IP, and what’s actually going to allow the farmers to live and thrive. To get out of their debt. To be self sufficient. It’s a war fought with ideas, with schematics, with being able to get around the ways that JM designed everything so that people would have to use their seed, their machinery, their everything. Breaking that monopoly means that people can breathe again, but it’s also illegal, and Lacey has to weigh her actions along with how they’ll impact the kids on her squad, those who want to help, who shouldn’t have to but do, because the situation’s fucked. And it’s a story that builds nicely, full of plans and cooperation and, ultimately, a victory that hopefully won’t be erased by corporate corruption and greed. Even as it manages a happy ending, though, it’s also rather bittersweet, looking at the ways the situation and JM have planted these seeds of discord that have grown and produced bitter fruit indeed. A great read!

“Songs of Activation” by Andy Dudak (5851 words)

No Spoilers: This story centers Pinander, a senior student studying for an exam that will define his entire life. A scholarship student in a place dominated by the extremely wealthy, Pinander is a pragmatist, studying his hardest but not really about either the propaganda of the texts he’s meant to study nor idealist about the corruptions of the system he’s participating in. He wants to pass, and he’s not too picky on how he does it. That doesn’t mean that he’s not connected to others, though. Just that despite his connections, the toll of the school hits him differently, and might make him uniquely qualified to handle something…revolutionary. The piece is heavy with loss, with the toll that schooling based on exams takes, looking at cost and pragmatism and making I think some statements subtle and obvious about how education often works, and how fucked up it is, even as sometimes the results are stunning.
Keywords: School, Exams, Contexts, Scriptures, CW- Suicide
Review: This story says a lot about education, I feel, and the crushing weight of college, especially ones that tie outcomes to life trajectories, to jobs, to earnings, to worth. Especially when the entire enterprise is boiled down to passing exams. Not to test what you know but to test how well you fit into the culture of the school, the values they espouse. The texts here unlock ways of thinking, unlock philosophy and physics, all of it tied to the context of the texts, the propaganda that allows them to reign supreme. The exam is about how well students can use these texts in ways that are novel and interesting but also dogmatic and familiar. And when students start to find that that’s the case, when they start being able to see that the dogma isn’t absolute, that there are different contexts, it breaks them. Because of how they must act in order to “succeed.” I also like how the story shifts toward the end, as Pin gets exposed to this second context, this counter-revolutionary thinking. How the actual perspective of the story moves from third person to second, so that you the reader are perhaps brought a little closer, the trap sprung, the walls closing in. You do become this sacrifice, this pawn, this person who isn’t even given a way out. Who is caught in this school that by regular design chews people up and spits them out. That, through the machinations of a rogue professor, is doing that EVEN MORE in an attempt to spark a needed change. And you’re just this student who wants to get through, get a job, make good on all the hopes that people have pinned on you. Finding that you can’t win, regardless of what happens. Might you put out some amazing, revolutionary ideas? Yes, sure! But will it ultimately break the system? Will it allow you to find safety or security? Haha. The story shows how toxic this is, how much loss it creates, and how the only way people can even envision out of it is through, somehow sacrificing more people to change what should probably be torn down entirely. And in that it’s a bit of a bleak read, showing the way that this style of education crushes people, and by design and on purpose, and how it’s really a prop to larger systems of power within the society, and how fucked up that is. And in that, it’s a strong, compelling read that I certain recommend spending some time with!


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